Army lab explores a shift to utility computing

The Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md., hosts research for the service's Future Combat Systems, which would closely link warfighters, commanders and geospatial intelligence.

Courtesy of Army Research Lab

Samuel J. Coco is the lab's senior Unix administrator.

Henrik G. de Gyor

The Army Research Laboratory at Adelphi, Md., routinely stores about 34T in its tape silos, and about 1T of new data arrives each night. Over weekends, the volume rises even more.

When the lab added to the mix a transition from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange Server e-mail, the backup requirements and chores mushroomed, said Samuel J. Coco, the senior Unix administrator and functional area manager.

To cope with the huge data flows, he's looking at utility computing'borrowing compute power as needed from other resources and groups'as well as intermediate disk-to-disk storage.

'Utility computing is a very good idea,' Coco said, 'but I believe it will require a major cultural change. We have finite resources available' from the server clusters running Exchange and Oracle databases to the primary and secondary file and print servers. 'Utility computing would let us borrow from other groups.'

The lab's networks support Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Army Research Office in Durham, N.C., and many smaller locations.

'We're responsible for all the Unix and Linux systems,' Coco said, including hosting the Army's collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build Future Combat Systems.

On 21st-century battlefields, FCS sensors and wireless nodes would closely link soldiers to each other, to their superiors and to geospatial intelligence.

Coco himself is already closely linked to his storage hierarchy by an always-on cell phone. 'I can get eight or nine sleepless nights per month,' he said, whenever the lab's information operations center finds problems with critical systems or routers.

His storage hierarchy includes:
  • A dedicated Sun Solaris backup server

  • An SGI server

  • Quantum Corp. Digital Linear Tape 7000 tape drives, which are being replaced by 9940B tape cartridge drives from Storage Technology Corp. of Louisville, Colo.

  • Two tape stackers

  • A disk storage array

  • NetBackup software from Veritas Software Corp. of Mountain View, Calif., now being upgraded to the latest version.

'I've been pleased' with the Veritas backup management software, Coco said. 'We have just proposed a $2 million enterprisewide backup plan for hardware and software, and Veritas is a cornerstone.'

The enterprise plan would manage cross-platform backup of all computing systems. They include the Army sites' local files, file and print servers, procurement systems, and Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc. databases.

E-mail switch

The e-mail changeover from Notes to Exchange 'is almost complete,' Coco said. 'We can either gain or lose' based on how well the 3,000-plus e-mail users decide they like Exchange.

In addition to backups, he said, 'We really need to look at Veritas to become an integrated part of a disaster recovery solution.'

Recovery from any type of disaster, natural or manmade, is paramount, he said. 'Depending on the data affected and the nature of the incident, we need to be able to recover any lost live data' that could be three hours to three days to 30 days old.

In case of a major incident, he said, 'We should have a process in place that would allow for immediate and uninterrupted transfer of connections to a duplicate backup site' while the primary site was being resurrected.

His hopes for utility computing could be dashed, however, by what he called 'the perceived ownership challenge to the user base.'

Asked how he would get around turf disputes, he said he would 'present it in terms of what the other groups would gain in lower costs and resource usage. Pool the resources and then share the wealth, rather than highlight what they would be contributing.'

If the plan were done right, Coco said, 'We would have continuity that's not seen now. We would have more predictable performance' because no disk would get more than 85 percent full. 'The management software would begin looking for new resources' when disk usage reached 70 percent.

Better load and resource balancing are going to be essential to protect the Army lab's multiterabyte knowledge base in an increasingly complex data communications environment, he said.

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