Making Room for Storage

More choices, lower costs give governments better business-continuity options with storage technology.

by / February 14, 2003
E-mail began as an alternative form of communication. Today, it's considered a mission-critical application in virtually every organization. This is also the case with government Web sites. First viewed as an extension of state or city publicity machines, today's government Web sites are an integral part of many state and local government platforms for serving individuals and businesses.

Those are just two in a sea teeming with technology-based applications now considered critical to an organization's success. These applications have fueled demand for ever-increasing amounts of storage.

Unfortunately, disaster-recovery and business-continuity plans are not keeping pace with the growth in applications and storage systems. Nearly 40 percent of companies responding to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey said it would take days or longer to bring records back online if a disaster wiped out their database.

That's because many organizations continue to underestimate just what a mission-critical application is, said Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis for EMC Corp.

"September 11th showed the flaws in many disaster-recovery plans," he said, noting that a number of firms affected by the attacks suffered further because they couldn't get their e-mail system back up fast enough.

In addition, a number of mandates are forcing the public and private sectors to beef up disaster-recovery and backup strategies. The Securities and Exchange Commission and other government agencies are preparing to mandate disaster-recovery requirements for certain core industries, including banking, securities and clearing-houses, said Claus Mikkelsen, a senior director with Hitachi Data Systems.

"The HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] regulations are in the process of mandating the same thing," he added.

On top of both these mandates and the growing demands for storage is the fact that what goes down, must come back up -- and usually in a hurry. Government agencies, like the highly competitive private sector, can no longer afford to wait days for their computer systems to reload and reboot after an interruption or disaster.

"Speed has become a critical issue in disaster recovery," Mikkelsen explained. "You have to demonstrate that you can recover in x number of hours, not days."

Cheap Terabytes
Fortunately, state and local government IT offices can provide their agencies and departments with recovery and continuity solutions based on the latest storage technology. Not only is the technology good, it's also a lot cheaper than it used to be. Hard-disk drives capable of holding one terabyte of data are expected to cost no more than $300 in the next two years, according to a report in U.S. News and World Report.

Just as important as price, storage solutions and continuity software have improved greatly, making management of data-storage needs for distributed systems easier, experts say. At one time, storage systems were run on direct-attached-storage systems, which couldn't share data between different servers or across an organization. Today, governments can invest in storage area networks (SAN), which manage capacity better and resolve interconnectivity problems.

At the same time, new software has changed the limitations of disaster recovery and business continuity from a previously costly insurance policy with little value to a much more dynamic resource. EMC's Symmetric Remote Data Facility (SRDF) and TimeFinder software adds new functionality to what was once a one-dimensional system.

SRDF replicates a government's primary data center to one or more remote sites, regardless of operating system. The action can occur on multiple servers, making it useful in computing environments with client/server and distributed applications. TimeFinder software allows government IT centers to create mirror images of mission-critical data for use in simultaneous processes. In other words, the primary data source is never at risk. Agencies can turn what is essentially their disaster-recovery storage site into a data center for developing new applications without worrying about losing data in a disaster.

"Disaster recovery has always been like a spare part for a car you never use," said Bob Padgett, director of data center operations for the state of Michigan. "You hope after it's been sitting there for a year that it works."

With improved software that issue is disappearing.

EMC recently signed a five-year multibillion-dollar strategic agreement with Dell, which will resell the EMC CLARiiON line of storage solutions to federal, state and local government, as well as other markets. Already, more than 35 percent of Dell's EMC sales have been to the government sector, according to EMC.

Other players in the storage field include Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Network Appliance, Fujitsu, StorageTek and Veritas.

Exponential Data Growth
Like the private sector, state and local governments are seeing exponential growth in data-storage demands. Web and e-government activity has accelerated the need for storage, which was already under pressure because of the growing demand for client/server in the mid-1990s. The trend mushroomed with the advent of enterprise applications such as ERP, and customer-driven solutions such as customer-relationship management (CRM).

Last year, New Jersey implemented a centralized SAN that handles data storage for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. Eventually, SAN will manage storage for the entire state. The system uses technology from Hitachi Data Systems and McDATA Corp. It's the state's first venture into SANs, and when funding becomes available, New Jersey will use SAN technology to back up data at a remote disaster-recovery site.

Michigan centralized its data center two years ago and built a remote backup site using EMC technology, specifically its Symmetrix Enterprise Storage systems and Connectrix Fibre Channel switches. The two sites are linked by a dedicated fiber line known as a dense wave division multiplexer (DWDM). The entire infrastructure provides 75 terabytes of storage for a range of computing platforms, including Oracle, Compaq, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Unisys and Bull, and supports applications for child support, treasury, corrections, state police and others.

The reason for such a robust storage environment stemmed from the growing needs of the state's agencies, according to Padgett.

"As more client/server was used in mission-critical applications, the agencies and their tech support people realized the traditional practices of storage and configuration management applied to client/server, including disaster recovery," he said.

It wasn't long before agencies were knocking on the data-center doors asking for help with backup and recovery strategies, he added. Over a 10-month period, the data center's storage grew by a factor of 10, according to Padgett. Improvements in technology made managing that much storage less of a burden. As a result, Michigan has only doubled its storage-management staff, from two to four, in the same period.

Meanwhile, with hard-disk storage becoming so economical, the state is rethinking its use of tape for backup purposes.

"We can begin to reduce our use of tape as a disaster-recovery strategy, because with SRDF software [and the SAN], we don't need to also create a tape for backup," Padgett said. "We're going to look more closely at when we use disk and when to use tape. The price-performance dynamics of disk storage have forced us to rethink the whole model for storage. What used to be cost-prohibitive is no longer such a big issue."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor