NFC data to come in from the rain

The Big Easy is a frequent target of hurricanes blowing across the Gulf of Mexico, which often forces the Agriculture Department's data center there to shut down until the emergency passes.

To reduce downtime, Agriculture plans to move the National Finance Center's data center equipment from New Orleans to the National IT Center in Kansas City, Mo. NFC will remotely manage it from New Orleans and convert its New Orleans center to a backup and disaster recovery operation. 'It gets our production data center outside the hurricane zone, so we're minimizing unscheduled downtime to our customers,' said NFC director Jerry Lohfink.
NFC contracted IBM Corp. in May under a $1.7 million task order to provide the initial project phases of discovery, specifications and design for four months.

NFC provides administrative, financial and record-keeping services and data center technology support for some Agriculture bureaus and nondepartment customers.

Align in the sand

The reconfiguration idea grew from the ground up, but Lohfink said such senior department officials as outgoing Agriculture CIO Scott Charbo view the reconfiguration as a step in aligning the department to enterprise management and more efficient government.

'We just launched the project to better align the data centers. By aligning them, we will have a standard configuration, which will enable us to make larger buys and save money,' Charbo, who was appointed last week as the new CIO for the Homeland Security Department, said at a recent conference.
NFC currently has a subscription service for disaster recovery and a small backup computer facility from SunGard Data Systems Inc. of Wayne, Pa. The center conducts two three-day test periods a year, providing its services out of a SunGard computer facility.

The tape-based process NFC uses to back up most applications entails lengthy downtime in an emergency, including shipping tapes and bringing a skeletal staff to the alternate facility. 'At best, that's a 48-hour recovery window,' Lohfink said.

It also is heavily reliant on people being able to travel to the SunGard site to use those backup tapes.
NFC plans to establish a primary computing facility co-located with NITC in two separate rooms'one supporting NFC customers and the other NITC customers.

NFC will continue its business operations at the New Orleans site with staff remotely managing the systems in Kansas City. NFC's data center move should be completed by June next year.

'Should we actually ever have an issue, we will be able to remotely manage that on a real-time basis, from anywhere,' Lohfink said.
And if Kansas City has an emergency, such as a tornado, the data is available at NFC, letting NFC operate for its customers.

NFC will complete the design of both computing facilities in September and start implementation and installation in the new computing facility in Kansas City in April, said NFC CIO Gil Hawk. Once operations are turned on in Kansas City, NFC will retrofit its computing facility in New Orleans to assure that the two data centers are carbon copies of each other, with completion set for summer 2007, he said.

When NFC vetted the proposal through the CIO's office, Charbo considered the project from a wider perspective to improve the disaster recovery and continuity of operations for the department while reducing costs.

Common architecture

'Scott basically told us that he has the goal to have all the USDA primary data center production performed in Kansas City and all associated or related disaster recovery operations performed in New Orleans,' Lohfink said.
Charbo anticipates that once the New Orleans and Kansas City centers have a common architecture, they will be able to take advantage of volume discounts, providing opportunities for significant savings on equipment, support system software and applications components, Lohfink said.
USDA has traditionally been decentralized, he said. So providing the single disaster recovery center could bring a more controlled environment.
The CIO's office is assessing the possibility of requiring Agriculture agencies to use NFC for disaster recovery and continuity of operations, he said.
NFC plans to upgrade its connectivity and switching capability, and expand its storage management, which entails having vendors install more capacity than is needed, Hawk said.

'It's a lot cheaper to put in a couple more racks and just turn it on as needed,' Hawk said.

If customers have unforeseen requirements for more computing capacity, NFC will be able to instantaneously respond to their increasing needs, he added.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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