Updates from September, 2010 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Andrew T Schwab 9:10 am on September 27, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cheap storage, , ESXi, freenas, NAS, SAN, small school big tech, VMWare   

    Poor Man’s SAN 

    Wikipedia defines a SAN as:

    A storage area network (SAN) is an architecture to attach remote computer data storage devices (such as disk arrays, tape libraries, and optical jukeboxes) to servers so the devices appear as locally attached to the operating system. A SAN typically has its own network of storage devices that are generally not accessible through the regular network by regular devices. The cost and complexity of SANs dropped in the late 2000s, allowing wider adoption across both enterprise and small to medium sized business environments.

    SANs come in all flavors but despite what Wikipedia says about costs dropping, I don’t know of too many small schools that have adopted SAN storage. They are still generally cost prohibitive. Most small schools I know have adopted SAN’s cheaper cousin, NAS (Network Attached Storage). NAS has the advantage of being cheap because it uses existing technology like SCSI, USB or eSATA to connect external storage directly to servers.

    NAS is great if you want to add storage to an individual server, or add storage on the network as a shared folder but if you want to build out a single storage node and slice it up to multiple servers, you really want a SAN. So what is a small school to do?

    Enter FreeNAS. FreeNAS is an open source embedded operating system that turns regular PCs into super network storage devices. For small schools, its a great alternative to expensive commercial SAN offerings. Full disclosure here though, you’re not going to get all the bells and whistles you would with a true commercial hardware SAN. No redundant controllers, fiber channel interconnects or high speed drive back-planes but for the basic functionality of a SAN that allows you to consolidate storage and share it with multiple servers, FreeNAS is more than capable.

    So how do I use FreeNAS? Well I use it in three distinct ways. Initially I setup a FreeNAS box so that I could share files and backup configurations on my ESXi VMware hosts much like I would a traditional NAS. Technically in this case, I am using FreeNAS as a central NFS file server and not a SAN but it was a good introduction to the OS for me. My first FreenNAS box was an old Dell GX270 tower with a couple 250GB EIDE drives in it. I installed FreeNAS onto a 512MB flash drive, enabled NFS and attached my VMWare hosts via the storage configuration in the VSphere Client. Easy.

    The next project was to provide “off site” backup. I had my computer class build a white box system (the case is actually black) using a basic Intel Motherboard, an Intel e5200 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 6 1TB Western Digital Green hard drives. Total parts cost was less than $1000. Again, I installed FreeNAS to a flash drive and proceeded to format the drives in RAID 5, enable and configure the iSCSI service and place the system in the furthest building from the Server Room that I could. I ended up with a headless box and a bit over 4TB of storage sitting in the Cafeteria network closet waiting for data.

    FreeNAS is the means but iSCSI is really what makes it all come together. I setup my Windows Server 2008 backup server running Backup Exec 12 to connect to the iSCSI targets on the FreeNAS box. Windows Server 2008 comes with the iSCSI initiator sofware that allows you to connect to an iSCSI target, if you are using Windows Server 2003, you can download the initiator from Microsoft here.

    In FreeNAS I broke down the drives into 2TB parts. Once mounted through iSCSI, they showed up as regular drives under Windows. Then I created Backup-to-Disk folders on these drives and now every night, the backups run across the 1Gb link from the server room to the Cafeteria network closet using iSCSI. In the event my backup server ever died, I could install Backup Exec on another server, attach the iSCSI targets to the FreeNAS box and be back up and running in no time. And even though all that data is traversing the network, its way faster than the SCSI tape drive ever was.

    I’m doing something similar for our network home folders. Again I’m using the iSCSI features of FreeNAS to share out storage to a windows file server. The home folders are located on the iSCSI drives and shared out through windows file sharing just like they would be if they were stored on locally attached storage. I also had my class build a dedicated FreeNAS box for this, again using off the shelf desktop Intel parts and 1TB western Digital Green Drives. I eventually plan to build a second FreeNAS box and use DFS with another windows server to build in redundancy for the home folders.

    Recently I wanted to experiment with running VMWare guests off of a SAN. I got the idea when Drobo came out with their Drobo Pro certified for VM. So the third way I am using FreeNAS is to store and run guest VMs. Again, iSCSI is the protocol but this time instead of windows I have the VMware host connecting directly to the FreeNAS iSCSI targets. I am not running this with any production systems, but I have been running two test systems for the past few months without any issues.

    The next step in my Poor Man’s SAN project is going to be to setup dedicated gigabit switches to create an isolated iSCSI storage area network. This may improve performance or it may just separate out the iSCSI traffic from my backbone network. I’ll know for sure when its up and running.

    Ok, so maybe it’s not a real SAN, but for a small school with no budget FreeNAS on generic Intel hardware with cheap 1 or 2TB SATA drives is an affordable solution with a lot of potential.

    “Storage area network – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2010. .

      • Tom 8:34 am on September 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Hi, From this article it sounds like you have done something I have been trying to figure out how to do. I have a FreeNas box set up and working. I have configured an iSCSI target and I can use it via VmWare ESXi 4.1. However; when I added another disk, I wanted to create another target for it and leave the original one alone. So far, all of my attempts to create a second target result in no targets (the first one becomes unavailable. I have been unable to find a reference via Google to explain how to create a second target. I’m sure my problem is that I don’t know what will make a second target “unique” and not interfere with the first target. I appreciate any help you could pass along. Thanks Tom

  • Andrew T Schwab 5:46 pm on September 24, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , GACT, Google Apps, google apps for edu, GPQI, professional development, training   

    Google Apps Qualified 

    I passed six Google Apps tests and all I got was this lousy… No wait. I’m now officially Qualified in Google Apps. As an Individual I get the above colorful PDF file to print and post on my wall (or embed in my blog). If I’d like to take it a step further I can apply to become a Google Apps Certified Trainer, which I presume would come with an even more colorful PDF file and some sort of official badge to display on my blog. Regardless of if you decide to become qualified, certified or none of the above, if you have any interest in learning about Google Apps, head over to the Google Apps Education Training site. Its packed full of great information.

  • Andrew T Schwab 9:28 pm on September 16, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , k12, , reinvent, revolutionize, school   

    The School Train 

    School is a train.  I don’t mean one of those long slow freight trains bogged down by a hundred tons of steal and cargo.  No, school is a bullet train charging down the track, leaving the day 1 station on the lightning run to 180.  Once the school train sets off, altering the course of that speeding machine is a superhuman task.  The train keeps going, only stopping for the occasional holiday or mid term break when you might have time to hop out, bang the track with a big hammer to make a minor course adjustment before you have to hop back on and speed away again.

    Bullet train

    Did I mention the school train moves fast? Day 30 flies by, then day 45, 90, 120 and soon the train is slowing into day 180 and the ride is up.  You are left with what you were able to accomplish during the ride using what you had with you on day 1, supplemented with the few things you brought back on board during the occasional stops along the way.  But for the most part, what you brought with you is what you used.

    The time to truly affect the course and eventual outcome of the train is in the summer, after the short four week hop to summer school has been made and the train is safely back in the maintenance yard.  It’s a short window, but proper planning and track laying can make or break that next 200mph trip.  Unfortunately, this is the time the people that make these decisions take their vacations. So the track goes unchanged. The train may get a new paint job and some fancy new gadgets, but it’s still making the same trip as the year before.

    On that trip, the train doesn’t slow down because the computer lab fails, it doesn’t alter course because Apple releases a magical tablet device, it doesn’t make an unscheduled stop because the Internet goes down.  It keeps going, no matter what. It sticks to the schedule. It keeps going until it gets to day 180.

    The train is a challenging place to work. You work with the people that got on the train day 1 and you probably don’t see many new faces all the way through until day 180. For the most part, you stay in your section of the train. Occasionally you meet with other passengers to hear about how well last year’s train ride went or to discuss a group of passengers that might be getting off the train early. It’s basically the exact same conversations you had last year. It may even be about the same passengers. Not much changes on the train from year to year. Same train, same scenery when you look out the windows, same destination.

    I think its hard to look at the train or the destination when you’re on the train speeding down the track at 200mph. Maybe what we really need in education is more time to think about where we are going and how we get there.

    What is it that we want to change in education? Is it the destination? The tracks that get us there? The train? Or maybe even the passengers?  Can we reach a new destination if all we change is the track and we leave the same trains running on them? Are trains even the best way to get there?

    photo source http://www.flickr.com/photos/telstar/216062271/

  • Andrew T Schwab 8:36 pm on September 16, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: classroom, , ,   

    Take Aways From The First Two Weeks – Part 2 

    In part one I talked about the need to get students setup with their network accounts in the first days of school.  I conveniently left out Teachers.  We usually have teachers back two days before the “official” start of school with students.  Those days are generally designated as professional development days when new concepts (sometimes old) are introduced and teachers are expected to become experts at something over night or better yet, re-design their entire first few weeks of class around some profound new understanding of learning the weekend before school starts (I’ll cover this thought process in another post, promise).

    What it has not historically been is a time to get teachers into their classrooms to make sure technology is working and that they are ready to go on day one of school with students.  This year was even more difficult because with budget cuts from the State, we only had one day before the official start of school.  Thankfully teachers were given the afternoon in their rooms however not very many turned on computers or checked online services to see if they were all set to go.  Which led to much fun and excitement for me in week two when every teacher decided it was time to put students on the Internet and a cascade of help requests started flowing in.  It was all mostly little things that together added up to a mini crisis for me.

    So for next year I’ll be the one going through the rooms checking all the computers the week before school and making sure everything was put back after facilities moved everything around for cleaning over summer, or after teachers came in and rearranged things or pulled all the computers off the tables and stuck them in a pile in the corner (yes that happened one year).  I’ll also see if I can build in some time to the training to remind Teachers not to wait until five minutes into the lesson to see if their Internet resources are still accessible or that they’ve forgotten the password to their favorite web 2.0 service.

    Because I’ve realized something about working at a school district, time is never on my side.  I am always up against time because the school day doesn’t stop, for anything.  The learning must flow.  That means that in the ever more connected learning environments of today’s schools, so must the Internet.

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