Pierce County, in Washington State, likes to boast that its unique blend of natural beauty and urban sophistication makes it one of the most livable regions in the nation. A large swath of land just south of Seattle, Pierce County encompasses the city of Tacoma as well Mount Rainier, a favorite destination for locals and tourists from all over the world.
The local government of Pierce County takes similar pride in making its community a great place to work and do business. To that end, the county makes all kinds of data about the region—everything from crime statistics to salmon populations—available online for county workers and the general public to search.
To help ensure that all the facts and figures it collects can be understood and put to good use, the county is increasingly presenting its data in an easy-to-read map format.
“Maps give you a special understanding of the data, so you can better understand crime patterns, real estate buying trends, the concentration of drug-abuse clinics or the most industrialized parts of the county,” said Linda Gerull, GIS (geographic information system) manager for Pierce County. Gerull estimates that approximately 80 percent of all county data has a geographic component and can be mapped.
For 15 years, Pierce County has used software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., or ESRI, to build online maps to accompany all the statistics of the Tacoma area. Then last year, Gerull realized there was a big—and growing—problem. The county had mapped so much material in a user-friendly, data-rich way that it had run out of data storage space—quite literally.
Compounding the problem of mountains of data was the fact that ESRI, based in Redlands, Calif., was in the process of moving to a new architecture that would require its customers to add more servers.
Pierce County did not have the budget to buy more equipment; Gerull said she realized that after years of the county adding servers in a haphazard, piecemeal manner as the need arose, she was not so sure that was the right strategy anyway.
The countys existing storage system was based on a hodgepodge of technologies from Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc. and other vendors, whose products did not always fit together seamlessly or efficiently.
As a complement to the maps the county already offered, Gerull said it had also recently adopted new data imaging software based on lidar, or light detection and ranging, technology. Lidar enables the presentation of data through terrain and topography imaging, which provides more detail than flat maps but also consumes more storage space. “We just keep adding data,” said Gerull.
There was no shortage of vendors eager to sell more storage equipment to Pierce County, which initially started a very basic search for a cost-effective way to add more storage. Gerull contemplated solutions from Unisys Corp. and HP, which had also recently introduced a blade server product that compartmentalized servers into multiple slots to provide more storage capacity and flexibility.
Ultimately, however, the county selected IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., to build an information-on-demand system running the ESRI applications, and ESRI would collaborate on designing the underlying architecture for the new system.
Because it found the IBM solution offered improved efficiencies, along with greater storage capacity, the county would be able to save money even as it doubled its storage capacity, Gerull explained. The county estimates it will save approximately $3 million in equipment and labor costs while also improving reliability and doubling storage capacity.
“You want to be able to create, capture and store information in a cost-effective way,” said Pete McCaffrey, director of IBMs storage division, which also provided training to Pierce County on implementing the new storage system.
IBM infrastructure technology is made up of a scalable tape library connected to a 6TB DS4500 storage server, four eServer xSeries servers and four eServer BladeCenter servers, McCaffrey said. One important benefit of storing data on BladeCenter servers is that each blade can act autonomously or in unison with the others.
Gerull and her IT staff, who worked to transfer data from the old storage system, opted to split one of its new BladeCenter servers so that half of it is used to store material for the Internet while the other half stores records for its own intranet.
“No major changes in operational systems are easy, but this one was a particularly long procurement cycle, and it did take a lot of testing on our end,” said Marty Balikov, a regional manager for ESRI.
After the IBM technology was installed, Gerull said she discovered that there had been a long-standing problem with the accidental corruption of new data. Her IT staff had been devoting considerable time to retrieving that data just to fix errors. Now they have a full months leeway to easily correct mistakes.
At the same time, end users have remarked that the overall retrieval of county records from ESRI is much faster than it had been, she said.
Both those benefits have turned out to be icing on the cake for Pierce County, which had originally sought only to expand its storage capacity in a way that didnt break the bank.
Andrea Orr is a free-lance writer in San Francisco. She can be contacted at [email protected].
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