Vicom Systems routers help Old Dominion University network get centered

Vicom Systems routers help Old Dominion University network get centered

By Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

In the heart of Virginia's Tidewater region, Old Dominion University is a state-run institution with a global, if not universal, charter. The school, renowned for its programs in engineering and science, is a research hub for the Navy and NASA, among other agencies. It recently took delivery of a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 10000 supercomputer, which with 32 processors and 32G of memory is it at No. 350 on the list of the world's 500 most powerful computers.

But until recently, the school, whose athletic teams have a lion as their mascot, was barely able to roar with its Unix systems because of a decentralized structure that had become a nightmare for its small staff, said Rowland Harrison, assistant director for Unix and system security in the school's Office of Computing and Communications Services.

'We had lots of departmental Unix servers; Sun and IBM servers in the sciences, chiefly our engineering school,'' Harrison said. The problem, he said, was 'a whole lot of Unix clients, and everything was managed individually.''

Up to the task

After confronting that situation, Harrison and his team decided to make some changes.

'We started to look at how we could centralize stuff and provide better services,'' he said. 'Our goal was to end up with more disk space, more horsepower and fewer servers, and manage it a little better.''

The task started at ground level. 'We had to develop a file system that could service a large number of people and scale very well. We have been very pleased with the SunSoft Solaris hardware, and we like their Fibre Channel input/output, but we also very much like the IBM Serial Systems Architecture,' Harrison said.

'We decided to have a twin set of Sun Enterprise 3500 computers to serve as file servers for the entire Unix environment. We wanted to let these servers serve the data and software for both Unix and Solaris, and we had them as joined systems for the failover capability. We did not want to have a single point of failure take us down. Having one file server sitting in front of a large disk farm'that could spell problems.''

But achieving all those goals required a unique solution to bridge the computers and storage media. 'We put in twin systems, and then we wanted to make sure that in the event of a failure, we could get to the other disks if the server couldn't. So we wanted to have a very fast I/O. When we looked at speed and redundancy, the best way to hook our Sun servers and SSA disks is with the Vicom routers.''

Vicom Systems' SLIC Fibre Channel storage routers helped Old Dominion University create an architecture that meets the needs of researchers and graduate students.

Those routers are part of Vicom Systems Inc.'s SLIC storage area network products, an acronym for Serial Loop IntraConnect, which implements Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop switched storage, SSA, SCSI and American National Standards Institute standards. The product is compatible with all Unix and Microsoft Windows NT platforms, and compliant with all existing peripheral connectivity standards, Vicom officials said.

Introducing the Vicom SLIC routers into the mix was a boost, Harrison said. 'We were still OK when we lost a router. Both servers could be wired through one Vicom router and retain the power and redundancy of the servers,' he said. 'If we lose a server, we can go through one of the routers to get to all the disks. There is a good set of redundancy there, where we can get to anywhere from anywhere and avoid a single piece of hardware taking us down, and retain performance throughout an outage.''

Centralizing the various departmental Unix servers into a single network is helped by the addition of the Sun Enterprise 10000 and by the imperatives that an information technology department can impose. But underlying the migration is the sheer power that users will be able to enjoy, Harrison said.

'When you combine these together we have a real killer architecture here,' he said. 'It should do really well at meeting the computer needs, whether high-end aerospace modeling or a lot of I/O, such as analyzing census data like the college of business may be doing.'

The new network will not have a vast number of users, he said, 'but the users we have will do intensive work; this kind of horsepower we really want to focus on the researcher and grad student who has real horsepower needs. It's not the number of users, but the intensity of the users we do have that is important.'

Finding a data storage solution to undergird the university's new network, dubbed Large Integrated Online Network Services, or LION, was vital, Harrison said. Competing products were too expensive or imposed unnecessary systems overhead, he said.

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