No Time For Fatigue

The army needed a top recruit to build a massive storage system. Here's who answered the call.

When internet time caught up with the U.S. Armys Personnel department, a network-attached storage (NAS) solution from integrator ECCS Inc. won the war. The Army Personnel Command is responsible for maintaining the personnel records for all active and reserve Army and National Guard personnel, from enlistment to separation or retirement. Duty assignments, performance evaluations, training records, citations, promotions, etc., for hundreds of thousands of service people must be preserved for decades.

Originally, all records were kept on paper and microfiche. In 1992, the Armys Personnel Command created a document-imaging, -storage and -retrieval system called the Personnel Electronics Management System (PERMS). It is a Unix-based, client/server platform that uses an Informix database to index and manage images stored on 12-inch optical discs arrayed in jukeboxes built by Cygnet Storage Solutions.

"The system was a good design for its time," says James P. Riggs, PERMS program manager. "The problem came up two-and-a-half years ago because of the Internet—with soldiers and corporate customers asking why they couldnt access records on the Net.

"We have long recognized the need to move to a Web-based environment," he continues. "This meant that the PERMS infrastructure would have to be rebuilt" to accommodate a thousand times more users and be accessible via the Web.

Scouting Out Recruits "We looked to industry for improved capability in document-management software and basic infrastructure redesign," says Riggs. "Our team consisted of the Government Program Office; Litton PRC, the [PERMS] system integrator []; CHE Consulting Inc., our provider for hardware maintenance support; and Science Applications International Corp., the independent verification and validation contractor. These three vendors helped develop system requirements and analyzed what must be done to meet our present and future needs."

Among the criteria that the team developed were faster access and retrieval of data; appropriate security for Internet transactions; and the ability to support queries from support agencies such as the VA and up to 500,000 military personnel.

"We conducted a market survey evaluating many RAID systems, including EMC, Network Appliances and Artecon Storage Tech, but ECCS had three things going for it, in addition to affordable cost," says Riggs.

> ECCS Synchronection NAS II system was the only evaluated system that had earned the RAID Advisory Boards Failure Tolerant Disk System Plus rating, an industry-standard certification of high availability.

> The Synchronection was ideal for PERMS heterogeneous networking environment, which includes Unix, Windows NT and now HTTP. The open-standards architecture of NAS devices ensures future flexibility.

> ECCS offered a Network Data Management Protocol (NDMP) solution, using Veritas software and Spectralogic tape libraries. These backup and recovery capabilities "were key because we had no backup for the optical media," says Riggs.

Painstaking Mission ECCS was awarded the PERMS contract in February 1999. But that was just the beginning of a lengthy process of forming partnerships with other PERMS contractors and integrating ECCS products with theirs.

All parties discussed the file-system layout for PERMS and planned for file-system expansion and storage and processor growth. One crucial part of the solution was interfacing ECCS system with the Litton PRC database specifically written for PERMS. Once the file-system layout was determined, ECCS would integrate the NAS product solutions at each of the three PERMS locations.

"The [Synchronection II] product is built on a thin-server architecture and performs file serving only, via NFS, CIFS and HTTP," says Tim Berbrick, VP of Advanced Solutions Group for ECCS. "One of the target markets for this product is document imaging; [our] product integrated seamlessly into their environment."

"To prepare for open access using Web browser software, we started converting the original PERMS [optical disc] images to comply with the TIFF 6.0 standard," says Riggs. Litton PRC handled the data-migration tasks.

Another requirement of the new NAS implementation was to have PERMS become self-sufficient and have the ability to do its own maintenance if necessary, such as adding more storage "on the fly" and extending the file system.

"A big plus of the solution is the backup capability," agrees Riggs. "In January 2001, we executed a backup of the entire National Guard Bureau in Arlington and moved it to the PERSCOM site in Alexandria, and then did a complete recovery to test the validity of the process." All tests were completed satisfactorily.

ECCS also faced temporary challenges getting Veritas Netbackup NDMP to work with ECCS NAS-Star thin operating system. Veritas and ECCS engineers collaborated to make low-level tweaks in NAS-Star that solved the problem.

"NetBackup NDMP enables the movement of backup data from one NAS device to another with a directly connected tape drive or automated tape library. This ability to share tape resources translates into a significant total-cost-of-ownership savings," says Berbrick.

March, One, Two, Three Once the testing and integration was done, implementing ECCS solution at the first three PERMS sites went quickly.

The National Guard Bureau site in Arlington, Va., went online in April 2000, followed in June by the Management Service Records for Army Officers (Alexandria, Va.). The third site, which manages records for enlisted personnel, went live in November in Indianapolis. Combined, the three sites boast 5.6 terabytes of storage. A fourth site will adopt NAS in May 2001.

"There has been a tremendous reduction in the amount of hands-on work and mail time and distribution time, with an increase in system performance and site productivity, as images are available faster and for more customers," Riggs says.

"Theres plenty of opportunities for NAS," adds Berbrick. He notes that analysts are recommending NAS to help IT managers handle storage-capacity demands, which the analysts expect will increase more than 10 times by 2003 to a $6.5 billion annual market. But, he cautions, "each network-attached solution is not a simple cookie cutter. The approach that must be taken when talking about multiple environments and various network technologies requires unique solutions.

"You can only prepare so much for an implementation, and when it comes down to it, the technical knowledge and staffing of your company partners with the customer to accomplish a working viable solution," he continues. "You just cant drop off the software and hardware and leave. You need an understanding of the customers environments and applications and needs. You have to be prepared for a combination of old legacy systems and new network topologies to work within this mix and to get them to coexist with one another."