Organizations with widely distributed offices often turn to VPN as a secure and inexpensive means of communicating and sharing resources. Now that same technology is being extended to storage. Targeted at international organizations, WebOffice Inc.’s Virtual Private Storage Network (VPSN) pulls distributed storage into the picture with the goal of facilitating data sharing among offices in different physical locations.

One company that has found the solution valuable is Inventes, Inc., a change management software development company with offices in the United States and India. Inventes uses the VPSN to coordinate its development teams and to share data. If the experience of Inventes is any indication of the solution’s potential, many international organizations can take advantage of the VPSN to improve collaboration and keep communications costs under control.

Overview and application
A management box called an ISERVer and one or more storage units called ILANds make up the VPSN solution. The ISERVer is a storage unit, too, but it manages the networked ILANd boxes, which act much like NAS solutions at the distributed offices.

“Fundamentally, it’s a sort of VPN server that is also useful for shared storage across a distributed environment,” said Vijay Sankaran, Inventes’ cofounder and vice president of products and engineering.

The ISERVer requires a routable static IP address and can be placed anywhere to manage the ILANd units. It receives regular updates from the distributed storage boxes on their status, capacity, and any task requests. The ISERVer then stores data about each ILANd in a relational database that allows it to locate each one and to provide routing for boxes behind firewalls.

Each remote location in an organization has an ILANd that communicates with the ISERVer to gain access to the storage group sharing data across the entire network. The system supports dynamic, static, or PPPoE IP addressing, and both the ISERVers and ILANds act as DHCP servers. Each also includes a seven-port 10/100 Ethernet switch and built-in firewall. To attach more than seven PCs to the devices, you can connect another switch to an uplink port on each. You can attach up to 253 PCs to the VPSN storage units.

The VPSN devices are available in three model tiers to support organizations of different sizes and needs:

  • The ISERVer 2080 offers 78 GB of storage. It’s equipped with 128 MB of SDRAM and is licensed for up to four ILANd units.
  • The ISERVer 2160 has 158 GB of storage and 256 MB of SDRAM. It can connect up to nine ILANd devices.
  • The ISERVer 2320 is equipped with 318 GB of storage and 256 MB of SDRAM. It can link up to 19 ILANds.

You can find additional specifications at the WebOffice product overview page.

Once the devices are set up, all connected PCs can access storage within the VPSN via a browser. Resources on the PCs themselves can also be shared with the proper access rights. This enables users to collaborate more easily and access storage that may reside thousands of miles away.

As a software development company, the data Inventes shares is its code base. “We have a core repository that we share between operations here in the U.S. and our operations in India,” Sankaran said.

Inventes has to ensure that the code repositories in India remain in sync with those in the United States. One option for accomplishing this, Sankaran said, was to have one code repository act as the master and the other act as a mirror or backup. This setup allows Inventes to better coordinate development efforts between its widely separated offices.

“Files that need to be synchronized can be scheduled for synchronization at preset times, so it’s sort of a hassle-free deployment and management of storage for us.”

Sankaran commented that the VPSN scheduling interface currently is not very intuitive, but Inventes is offering WebOffice feedback for further improving the interface. break

Sankaran said that one of the aspects of the system that attracted Inventes was that it operates on the same basic premise as a VPN and doesn’t require anything beyond a standard broadband Internet connection such as DSL or T1.

“You’re basically just getting a local ISP connection on both ends, as opposed to having to invest in dedicated lines.”

Sankaran said that to address connectivity reliability issues, many Indian companies doing business with U.S. counterparts purchase International Private Lease Circuits (IPLCs), which provide dedicated end-to-end broadband network links to guarantee the reliability of communications.

“Telco service providers offer what they call ‘landings’ at a significant cost. Companies then back that up with a satellite uplink as well.”

This option, Sankaran said, would have been Inventes’ best alternative to the VPSN approach. But although this effectively solves the connectivity issues, the costs are still very high.

“We quickly realized that we would be better off just getting a couple of DSL lines—one primary, one backup—and using the VPSN to achieve the same goal at one-third the cost of IPLC.”

The ease of managing the storage is another reason Inventes likes the VPSN solution. And Sankaran said that mapping data is nearly transparent in WebOffice.

Mapping to data based in India is the same as if it were on a local server, which promotes a collaborative work environment that is flexible and easy to work with. Inventes can deploy its development servers in India and access them from its U.S. offices as if the data were stored locally. The VPSN establishes reliable links to the two locations, allowing them to share data without having to pay the costs of more expensive options, such as leased circuits.

VPSN can also be used across different platforms since it uses standard Windows networking protocols—although it runs on Linux.

“Everything is running on Samba. The current platform is a pure Linux implementation.”

Final analysis
WebOffice’s VPSN solution offers intriguing potential for distributing shared storage over great distances and giving users secure and reliable access to those storage pools. WebOffice claims that the system is self-provisioning, which eases management and can potentially lower the TCO. Organizations with international offices may, like Inventes, look at the VPSN as a means of sharing storage space, synchronizing files, and backing up data while avoiding the high costs of dedicated lines.

WebOffice offers products aimed at organizations of varying sizes and needs, so its products may be worth a look for those searching for an alternative means of linking important data resources between remote offices.