For its time, the Library of Alexandria was the greatest repository of knowledge in the Western world. Over 500,000 scrolls containing an unimaginable wealth of mathematics, astronomy, geometry and literature reportedly lay in the three buildings that composed the library, located in the city founded by Alexander the Great in the delta of the Nile. Ships entering the Alexandrian harbors were searched for books to be copied and added to the library's shelves, for the value of that knowledge to others was recognized far and wide.
Alexandria's library has long since been demolished, burned to ashes either during an attack on the city by Julius Caesar or by Theophilus in an attempt to leave the Bible as the only source of knowledge. The truth behind the destruction remains unclear, but not the lesson for all subsequent librarians and storage experts: Invest well in your storage systems, create efficient ways to search for items, and maintain copies of everything, for you never know when disaster will strike.
Today's modern Alexandria - the city in Louisiana located just a few hours from the Mississippi delta - may not be as grand as the one of old, but that doesn't change the need for it and countless other municipalities to store today's data safely, retrieve it with ease, and ensure room for future growth.
Over the past few years, the amount of data traveling over Alexandria's wide area network, which stretches across nine government campuses, had nearly doubled thanks to an increase in the number of Oracle users and regular growth in Internet and e-mail use. Everything from data files and server applications to Internet access and e-mail ran across the same system, often overwhelming the capacity of the city's storage devices. Because the city relied on disjointed storage devices - one for each of the nine campuses - each database had to be backed up individually, a process that required an information services employee to drive from campus to campus each day.
What's worse, the entire backup process took up to nine hours to complete. "Often the backup was still going the next day when we were trying to get applications running," said Jimmy Koonce, Alexandria's manager of information systems. "The applications were slow enough even without the backup bumping into it, so it was very painful."
Still, it was a process that had to be done. "The question we asked was, 'What is the true cost of data backup,'" said Koonce. "The answer is, 'How much does it cost if you don't [back up your data]?' Good backup costs far less than lost data."
Cutting Out Duplication
To ensure his information services department could continue to serve Alexandria, Koonce needed to eliminate the lengthy backup times and the labor required to keep each campus up to speed.
To start, the IS department brought in a new storage/backup tape drive platform from Exabyte that reduced backup time from an average of eight hours to an hour and a half. "That greatly reduced the stress we had," said Koonce.
The next purchase was an IBM RS/6000 workstation that ran applications faster and further reduced demands on available processing power.
Finally, Koonce got the municipality to purchase a new storage infrastructure that uses backup and restore software called NetVault. Taking full advantage of the speed of the IBM workstation, NetVault lets data move from disk drive to tape storage media without being processed by the backup servers at each campus. By centralizing data storage, backup can now be handled from one location, thereby eliminating the daily trip to each campus.
Koonce said the NetVault software is more user-friendly than his old storage system. "We couldn't put anything on hold," he said. "If we had something scheduled at 5:30, we either had to let it go at that time or kill it and completely re-input the parameters of the backup. We couldn't reschedule anything. Now we can hold and reschedule backups without having to re-enter anything. The operation is a whole lot smoother."
Koonce said he had little problem getting the project funded. "We've been fortunate in that our city council has been supportive of information technologies. I think everyone here understands the value of having backup."
A Dozen Problems, One Solution
California's Contra Costa County, located on the San Francisco Bay, was facing an equally discouraging situation with its three-year-old server-attached storage system. "We were looking at hitting the storage wall," said Jeana Pieraldi, a network technician for Contra Costa.
Contra Costa stores 100 gigabytes of data annually, and Pieraldi knows that figure will grow in the future as material from decades past is added to the database. "We had talked about changing to larger drives, which would have given us six months of space at a cost of about $45,000," she said. "We knew that wasn't going to work, so we looked at getting another server and replacing the system."
In their search for a new server and storage system, Pieraldi said Contra Costa had particular needs, such as operating across both Unix and Windows platforms, reducing a crippling backup time of three days, and cutting the number of hours Pieraldi spent maintaining the servers. But their main requirement was the ability to expand storage capacity in the future without burdening their current budget. "That was the big requirement from my boss, looking down the road five and 10 years and seeing our needs," she said.
In the end, after examining systems and watching demonstrations from numerous vendors, the county went with a network attached storage system from Auspex that was installed in a day. The Auspex server relies on three microprocessors that do discrete functions so the system is never overloaded by user requests, reports or administrative tasks. Pieraldi said the backup time has dropped from three days to three hours, and she now spends only a couple of hours each day on server maintenance, down from four to six hours.
The system came with 500 gigabytes of storage space and can be expanded to nine terabytes without ever taking the system offline. "That was another thing we looked for because we can't be down," said Pieraldi. "We don't have that option."
The Auspex system is a self-contained unit that simply plugs into an existing network, and its portability helps satisfy the county's disaster recovery needs. "If I have to move it to another building, I just take the system and move it," said Pieraldi.
In addition to running reports faster and retrieving images more quickly, Contra Costa's new system saved them $375,000 compared to the cost of more general-purpose servers, not to mention ongoing savings in terms of reduced labor costs.
Planning for future storage needs qualifies as a decidedly unsexy task, but that's often what public officials hope for. "We answer to the taxpayers," said Pieraldi. "If we can't function reliably for them, they're not very happy with us."
To avoid falling into that situation, Pieraldi said, "Plan down the road, look at all your options, have a clear, defined set of needs, and don't compromise on them."
Koonce seconds the need for a big picture approach. "Every time we try to solve a problem we make sure the backup fits into the backup scheme we have for the city," Koonce said. "If you don't have that kind of plan, then it can get away from you real quickly."