Network failure spurs IT overhaul at law school

US law school embraces virtualization, blade servers and SANs

Four years ago, when the New England School of Law in Boston suffered a total network failure that lasted almost a week, the IT department knew a major overhaul was in order.

From two cramped server rooms, the school's small IT staff was trying its best to maintain a wireless network for 1,100 students, e-mail, VoIP phones, payroll applications, Web servers, FTP servers, an ERP system, and specialty applications that handle building security functions. But there were too many single points of failure, and when the school's main router and Web server failed at the same time, the results were disastrous.

"Even though we didn't have too many pieces fail, they were expensive pieces and they were pieces the rest of the network couldn't run without," says Nathan Reisdorff, director of IT at the school.

The school's dean, "staring at 1,100 angry students" in Reisdorff's words, was quick to propose an overhaul of the college's network. Besides suffering from single points of failure, New England Law was running out of space in the two server rooms and having trouble getting enough air conditioning to the servers.

The keys to overhauling the network, making it more reliable and cost-efficient, were VMware's virtualization tools including VMotion along with HP blade servers, storage-area network and storage virtualization products. Over the past year and a half Reisdorff and CIO Charles Killam built a redundant network with automatic failover and backup capabilities, while shipping about 20 legacy servers out the door and reducing demand on power and cooling by about 30 percent. But the school experienced some fits and starts and new problems before finding the right strategy.

Reisdorff explains that he and his colleagues tried to implement a best-of-breed approach with an EMC storage-area network (SAN) and Dell servers, but never got everything fully implemented because of equipment problems and a lack of experience designing a high availability network. Servers failed, there were problems hooking servers up to the EMC Clariion CX300, and when New England Law went back to the providers, they simply pointed fingers at each other, according to Reisdorff. Unforeseen costs plagued the project almost from the start.

New England Law started looking for a vendor that could help them through the whole process of redesigning its network and provide most of the equipment it needed, examining companies such as IBM, Sun, Dell and Hitachi before finally settling on HP. In addition to HP BladeSystem servers, New England Law purchased an HP StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array (EVA) and an HP tape library for backup.

Storage virtualization makes deploying storage to servers and applications far easier, particularly for a small staff that includes just two network administrators and two help desk employees, Reisdorff says.

Virtualization allows the formation of "storage pools that can grow and shrink," he says. "One of the biggest problems we have with traditional SANs is when you try to shrink them you really have to destroy and rebuild them."

At New England Law, two SANs in different buildings copy over to each other, helping provide high availability. Other features Reisdorff likes include automatic load balancing and easy-to-use management screens.

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