McMaster University Protects its New PeopleSoft Deployment with Red Hat Storage Server

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February 4, 2014

McMaster University was in the middle of a major PeopleSoft deployment when it needed a new storage system with active-active replication capabilities. The university searched for a cost-effective and reliable software-defined storage solution and found it in Red Hat® Storage Server.

Customer: McMaster University

“I showed Red Hat Storage Server to our operations people, who are ultimately the ones who will have to support it, and they were amazed at how intuitive and easy it was to use.” - Wayde Nie, lead architect for the university technology services department, McMaster University

Industry: Education
Geography: North America
Country: Canada


Business Challenge:

McMaster University was in the middle of a major PeopleSoft deployment when it needed a new storage system with active-active replication capabilities, where data is actively synchronized and made available in real time between multiple storage devices, which may be in multiple physical locations.

Hardware:

ESXi VMs on Dell Compellent

Benefits:

The university searched for a cost-effective and reliable software-defined storage solution and found it in Red Hat Storage Server. Today, with the deployment almost complete, Red Hat Storage Server gives McMaster University the flexibility it needs to take care of both existing and future storage requirements.

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Background:

Founded in 1887 by Senator William McMaster, the first president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, McMaster University is a four-year college located near Toronto. Ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world, McMaster is the creator of the “McMaster Model,” a student-centered, problem-based, interdisciplinary approach to learning, which has been adopted by universities around the world. With a total sponsored research income of $325.9 million, McMaster University ranks sixth in the country in research intensity, averaging $248,600 per faculty member. McMaster University currently has more than 21,000 full-time undergraduate students, 3,500 graduate students, and 150,000 alumni living in 140 countries. The majority of graduates—93%—are employed within two years of graduating.

Business Challenge:

Needed: Scalable, highly available storage for new PeopleSoft deployment

McMaster University was in the process of deploying a major PeopleSoft implementation to improve and modernize its business processes. The university needed to replace the applications for several departments, including student administration, finance, research administration, human resources (HR), student records, and business intelligence to meet the changing needs of McMaster. While designing a solution, the university technology services (UTS) team responsible for the technical implementation realized it had a problem with storage.

“We’d put a lot of effort into designing a system that was resilient to failure and highly available, when we realized storage was an issue,” said Wayde Nie, information architect with McMaster’s UTS department. “Specifically, our SAN [storage area network] solution didn’t have active-active replication capabilities.”

Such capabilities were critical for the system. If one of McMaster’s two computer rooms had a failure, the other room needed to keep operating. “The SAN-based storage could be accessed from either room, but if we lost the site that had the storage we needed in it, there would be no replica of the data,” said Nie.

Solution:

Red Hat Storage Server: An easy-to-use, low-cost storage solution

Nie’s first instinct was to activate the active sync feature of the department’s Dell Compellent storage hardware platform, but he ran into two roadblocks. First, it was prohibitively expensive. Second, it didn’t perf active-active synchronization of the files with concurrent access to both replicas, which Nie said was an absolute requirement.

Why is active-active synchronization so important? Multiple PeopleSoft server VMs—distributed between two datacenters—would need to access a common and consistent set of files. For UTS, that meant they needed a file-based, network share technology with active synchronization of the share between two locations to meet high-availability requirements. That way, the department is able to continue operating even if one of the datacenters is offline.

The Compellent platform actively synced files but without the real-time failover they need. “This meant we had to complete manual work to perform a failover, which we really didn’t want,” said Nie. “We needed something where both sides of the storage were accessible simultaneously. The other option was to take advantage of our existing HP EVA [enterprise virtual array] storage system that was already deployed on campus. But we only have one of those so we would have to buy a second array, which would have been very expensive.”

Additionally, that would have been going in a different direction than Nie wanted. McMaster was committed to moving away from physical, proprietary systems and toward open, software-defined solutions.

“We have a heavily virtualized environment and we want software-defined storage, network, and compute to work within that environment,” said Nie. “Going with either the Compellent or HP solution would have prevented us from virtualizing more to achieve the flexibility we needed.”

Then Nie turned to Red Hat. He was a long-time Red Hat user—the UTS department standardized on Red Hat® Enterprise Linux® several years prior. Nie immediately liked that Red Hat Storage Server was not hardware-dependent and that he could deploy it in a virtualized container.

“Red Hat Storage could be layered on top of the physical Compellent disk storage that we already had, and get the active-active replication we needed,” said Nie.

Benefits:
 
On the cutting edge

McMaster purchased two pairs of Red Hat Storage Server nodes. One pair is for its non-production environments, which had previously been implemented. The other pair is for its production environment, which is currently in process of being deployed.

With Red Hat Storage Server, McMaster can use its existing storage hardware. “We could keep the physical storage under the Red Hat Storage Server layer, but re-export it as replicated, high-availability storage.” said Nie.

One of Nie’s favorite characteristics of Red Hat Storage Server is that it can be expanded or upgraded in real time without disrupting operations. “One of the biggest reasons for going with Red Hat Storage Server is that by adding replica pairs to the GlusterFS native client, our performance will scale up with the number of nodes we add—all without impacting operations,” he said.

The primary feature that made the deal, however, was the active replication between nodes. “That was essential,” said Nie.

Ultimately, these capabilities contributed to greater flexibility. “If you export the raw storage that resides in a software-defined layer, then you get the flexibility to export it and replicate it however you require,” said Nie. “That was absolutely key for us."

Red Hat Storage Server replicates in both directions, so when a system failure triggers a switch to backup, things keep working automatically. “We’ve done quite a bit of testing, and pulled the plug on one side or the other, and things continue to hum along,” said Nie. He is also very pleased with the simplicity of Red Hat Storage Server setup and its ease of use.

“I showed it to our operations people, who are ultimately the ones who will have to support it, and they were amazed at how intuitive and easy it was to use,” said Nie. “A clustered file system that you can set up in three commands? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Literally.’”

“They’re always a little wary about the new things they have to support, but when they saw this, they were really happy.”

Working with Red Hat on this project has been a very positive experience, according to Nie. He was especially appreciative of the extra attention he’s getting, given the relatively recent arrival of Red Hat Storage Server into the Red Hat product portfolio. “Red Hat has been very responsive,” said Nie.
 
Looking ahead, Nie said Red Hat cloud technology just might be in McMaster’s future.

“Red Hat’s cloud solutions are attractive to us, and we’re probably going to start a bit of a trial with them,” he said. “Nothing official, just some initial testing. My group is constantly thinking about our future, and Red Hat cloud technologies are on our radar.”

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