Consolidation project saves county $3M

Pierce County, Wash. moved its geographic information system data off EMC, Sun and HP products to consolidate on a single vendor.

Pierce County, Wash. tackled its crippling data growth by consolidating its infrastructure on IBM blade servers and storage, and will save $3 million in the process.

The move to a single vendor was driven by economics and the level of effort required to maintain a heterogeneous environment. The county had 58 applications on 24 servers running different operating systems and middleware that made it difficult to build new applications. "Our support costs blew out the ceiling, we almost came to a stop because we couldn't field anymore hardware, so new applications couldn't be installed and we couldn't grow anymore," said Linda Gurell, GIS manager at Pierce County. The county also faced an upgrade on its geographic information system (GIS) platform.

Before the consolidation project, Pierce County ran its GIS for the community's 700,000 residents and 35 agencies on Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Sun Microsystems Inc. servers, connected to EMC Corp. storage. The county's storage system was three to four years old and reaching the end of its lease.

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"We envisioned using this system for the whole county, partitioning access as needed, but we found that as the cost for storage comes down it makes better sense from a county perspective for storage to be decentralized," Gerull said.

Pierce County's GIS department is responsible for designing and maintaining geographic data for the entire county. The bulk of the data collected is Light Detection and Ranging ( Lidar) terrain information gathered from satellite images. This laser range finding technique involves taking readings from the sky of billions of points on the land to get an actual representation of the ground for terrain models. From these models the county can see what the land is being used for; what has been built versus what was planned and for tax assessment purposes, according to Gurell.

"Storage is hugely important to GIS applications, but historically we haven't paid enough attention to it," she said, adding that this is changing because of the government's use of Lidar data. "Storage on this stuff is stinking huge." The department has jumped from 3 terabytes (TB) to 6 TB since it began the consolidation project a year ago.

IBM and business partner Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., offered an answer to its problems. The county consolidated its 24 servers into four IBM eServer BladeCenter HS20s. "We can configure one blade and the setup is copied across all of them, or configure a switch and it's automatically configured across all blades, or we can use a blade to solve a problem quickly, it's so much faster," Gurell said. The county would have looked at blade systems from other vendors, but at the time IBM was the only vendor shipping this technology, she said.

The rest of the infrastructure is made up of an IBM Ultrium tape library connected to a 6 TB IBM DS4500 SAN array that backs up various GIS applications. The BladeCenter HS20 supports a 2-port Fibre Channel host bus adaptor that provides the interconnect to the SAN. "We wanted to be able to use the disks as local storage on any other blades in that chassis," said a network administrator at Pierce County.

Four IBM eServer xSeries servers run database and geographic analysis software and several other applications. IBM Tivoli Storage Manager is being used for backup.

Cost savings

The county expects to save $3 million over three years in technology and maintenance costs. It is leasing the blade system from IBM to spread the cost out over time. "Everyone frowns upon large capital expenditures in local government so leasing is a terrific option … the maintenance costs are the same each year and it's easier to make a justification to move to the next generation as opposed to hanging onto a system until it dies," Gurell said. "Our total cost of ownership (TCO) will be much less than the capital expenditure of a typical upgrade cycle."

Both the leasing arrangement and the blade center infrastructure contributed to the lower TCO. With a simpler backup and provisioning environment, Gurell said she is able to manage the county's growth without having to hire more staff.

The only hiccup the county ran into during the migration to the new infrastructure was the move from Microsoft Terminal Services to a client access licensing model. "You have to have a license on the client side to use the server, but with terminal services you didn't have to," Gurell said. "This surprised us a bit, we didn't have enough licenses to access the servers."

She expects capacity management to be an ongoing concern. The county projects it will need another 2 TB next year to store more Lidar data.

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