USDA agency adds disk farm

USDA agency adds disk farm

Mike Horn, left, and Dave Losh, both agricultural statisticians and computer specialists at NASS, show off the management console of their new SAN.

Statistics service migrates to SAN for increased fault tolerance, reliability

BY Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

An Agriculture Department agency is cultivating a bumper crop of disks in its new storage area network.

Along with a server upgrade, the National Agricultural Statistics Service is installing a 320G Magnitude network storage system from XIOtech Corp. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

The agency is in the final stages of installation and beta testing, said David Losh, a computer specialist at the NASS Systems and Information Division. The system is scheduled to go live over the Columbus Day weekend this month.

SANs are relatively new storage technology for connecting disk subsystems to dedicated servers so administrators can carry out data backups and transfers without putting extra traffic on the LAN.

NASS, the USDA agency that surveys agricultural production and prices, has regular users in agricultural businesses, farmers' organizations, state legislatures, other federal agencies and commodities markets. The agency also recently took over the agricultural census, conducted every five years, from the Census Bureau.

For more than five years, NASS has used six Dell Computer Corp. Pentium servers running Novell NetWare, Losh said. The old servers had less than 180G of internal disk storage.

The 350 computer users at NASS headquarters in Washington 'maxed out' the existing storage, Losh said. About 70 more employees moving to NASS from the Census Bureau in Suitland, Md., brought along another 20G of data with them.

Under one roof

For almost two years, agency officials have wanted to consolidate data storage in a central location to improve fault tolerance and reliability, Losh said. Budget considerations delayed the move until this year, and in the meantime SAN technology matured, Losh said.

NASS officials learned about XIOtech at a Novell seminar, Losh said. They wanted a storage system that would work with NetWare 5, the network operating system for most of the agency.

XIOtech let the agency borrow an evaluation unit for testing with its servers and drivers. 'It performed very well for what we needed,' Losh said.

Following the purchase decision, Losh and a colleague attended a three-day XIOtech training seminar to become certified in using the equipment.

NASS ordered its initial SAN with 20 18G drives, which will roughly double its storage capacity, Losh said. Because the central array holds up to 32 drives, the storage capacity can be increased in the future.

The agency 'has lots of room for growth,' said Richard Blaschke, XIOtech's executive vice president of marketing. Besides adding another 12 drives, NASS could convert the SAN drives to 50G size if needed, he said.

The Magnitude SAN lets administrators set multiple redundancy levels and hot-swap the disk drives, which should result in less downtime, Losh said.

NASS ordered the XIOtech SAN in a RAID Level 5 configuration, which provides fault tolerance without sacrificing read-write performance, Losh said. The Level 5 configuration spreads data across drives so that if one fails, the whole array will not crash.

XIOtech's RediCopy software, which comes with the SAN, can copy files while they remain available to the users, Blaschke said. The copies can be used to make backups. Additional software from Vinca Corp. of Orem, Utah, enables data sharing of certain files and midday data backups.

The XIOtech system is based on Fibre Channel specifications with a peak transfer rate of 100 megabytes/sec. Losh said he has noticed a definite increase in speed over the previous backup systems.

Separate from the SAN, the agency has also acquired a StorageTek 9714 tape library from Storage Technology Corp. of Louisville, Colo., that has four DLT7000 tape drives and 100 tape slots, Losh said.

NASS is transporting most of its applications to a new Dell PowerEdge 6300 server with two 500-MHz processors and 2G of RAM. A second new PowerEdge 6300 will handle e-mail and communications with 45 remote offices. They are scattered around the country and have their own servers and storage systems, Losh said.

Most of the agency's client machines are PCs running Microsoft Windows 9x, he said.

The statistics service bought 11 PowerEdge servers, but only two are going into production, Losh said. A second pair will be attached to the network as failover servers. 'Users will never know those are around' unless one of the production servers goes down, he said. The remaining seven servers will be put to other uses for application development and testing.

The XIOtech hardware and software cost the agency about $140,000 through a General Services Administration Federal Acquisition Service for Technology contract.''

The two PowerEdge servers cost about $225,000, the tape library about $76,000 and the Vinca software $19,000. All the prices include three-year maintenance and support contracts.

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