Getting flash at Barnsley College

Mark Kendrick explains how updating the College’s IT storage infrastructure has both saved money and improved support for users and staff

At Barnsley College we provide vocational, A Level, higher education and part-time courses and apprenticeships. We have five main sites plus some remote sites, and 800 teachers supporting around 9,550 students.

Like many educational institutions, we needed to update our IT infrastructure to improve performance, meet changing user needs and support future development. We had particular issues with our storage infrastructure – connections were frequently dropping out and data transfer times, especially for backup and disaster recovery, were getting slower and slower. Student log-on times were also becoming unacceptably long, up to three and a half minutes.  

We were no longer confident our existing storage solution could support our storage needs. So we researched the market for the best value solution to provide the performance we needed at an affordable price.

As well as faster access, we wanted deduplication and compression to speed up the read/write process, handle future storage needs and reducing licensing fees for document management software.  And we wanted to increase the robustness of our recovery system, as our backup window was around three days.

At our current rate of growth, the College would have needed a new storage bank every year

We were introduced to an infrastructure specialist, Fordway, who were technology agnostic, so they were able to compare the pros and cons of different storage solutions against our requirements. They suggested hybrid flash from a relatively new company called Tegile, and arranged for us to have a live demo. We liked what we saw and after comparing the different options we decided on a Tegile intelligent flash array with 22TB of capacity, of which 600GB is flash. It comes with software, so we didn’t need extra licences. The array arrived within a week and was installed within 24 hours, without any noticeable disruption to our services.

It’s a multiprotocol (iSCSI, fibre channel and NAS) dual controller array with a combination of DRAM cache, MLC and SAS HDD storage tiers. It provides data deduplication, compression, RAID enhancements and a feature called Metadata Accelerated Storage System (MASS) which enables data in the system to be dealt with via its metadata headers rather than the full copy. The headers are kept in cache or SDD tiers. 

By moving all our VMware servers and data to the Tegile array, we’ve reduced our document storage on disk from around 50TB to 15TB. We’ve also moved pre-caching for student roaming profiles to the new storage, which has reduced log-on times from three and a half minutes to 30 seconds. So after having endless complaints from students about the speed of the network, within a month, those complaints had all but disappeared. And moving Microsoft Exchange data onto the new array has reduced the backup window from 36 hours to one hour. 

It’s also reduced the need for more storage. At our current rate of growth, the College would have needed a new storage bank every year. With compression and de-duplication, we won’t need to buy any more storage for at least the next five to six years, saving us up to £30,000 a year in total cost of ownership. So it’s been a very worthwhile investment.

Mark Kendrick is Head of IT Services at Barnsley College in South Yorkshire