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Newspaper breaks news on rugged storage systems

The data center at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) sits right above the famed Atlanta-based newspaper's printing presses. When the presses fire up two or three times a day, the vibrations do weird things to the disk storage systems. "We lose drives at a pretty hefty rate," said Frank Branham, a senior systems analyst at the AJC.

Although finding a way to ward off the vibrations and dirty air from the presses wasn't the primary consideration in the newspapers recent decision to acquire Dot Hill's SANnet Fibre Channel storage systems, it was certainly a compelling one, Branham said. Tops on his list were price and performance.

Dot Hill's storage systems are certified to meet Network Equipment Building Systems Level 3 specifications for ruggedness in hostile conditions such as earthquakes, dust storms and lightning strikes.

The storage arrays have even passed muster with the military. In January, the systems were "mil-spec" certified to meet Department of Defense military ruggedization standards by passing tests for altitude, temperature, humidity, functional shock, and other environmental conditions.

"We wouldn't even consider any arrays without two controllers and internal redundancy because the array is the single point of failure for these kinds of configurations," Branham said. "In general, most of the arrays at this price point have that, but that's a requirement anyway."

The AJC has four Dot Hill SANnet Fibre Channel storage

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arrays in service for its extensive databases, Branham said. The primary application is running AJCJobs. com, the newspaper's career and job Web site, he added. Three of the storage arrays were purchased to upgrade aging systems used for a wide range of standard business operations.

The newspaper sets up its servers in clustered pairs, with Veritas Cluster Server handling the load balancing and failover chores. Being able to connect up to eight servers to a Dot Hill storage array was particularly appealing, Branham said. He also liked being able to assign a set of drives to those different servers. "If you have 72 gig drives, you can create a RAID 5 stripe across five drives," he added. "A lot of other storage systems force you to assign that entire giant volume to one server."

The newspaper is also running SANpath storage networking software and SANnet Alert monitoring system, although it does not have a Storage Area Network (SAN).

"We haven't been able to justify return on the investment for a SAN," Branham said. "We do have Fibre Channel storage systems and we tie three or four servers to them that are generally associated with a group. But as far as the dream of tying everything to one giant storage network that is managed, the big switches are just too expensive to justify the cost so far."

At the moment 200 to 300 gigabytes of data (out of 2 terabytes of available storage space) reside on the arrays. "When you buy an array now, it is hard to get anything less than 36 or 72 gig drives and generally, most vendors will have a package that makes sense to fill the array."

Like many companies, the AJC has seen its data volume escalate rapidly, especially as it takes on new applications like the AJC jobs Web site. It's becoming increasingly difficult to backup all of its databases over the corporate LAN within an inflexible backup window, Branham said. "Right now, we can back it all up, but give me a year and I'm not sure that will be the case," he said.

Meeting the tape backup window may be the impetus to finally deploy a SAN, Branham added.

For more information about AJCJobs, visit its Web site.

For additional information about Dot Hill Systems, visit its Web site.

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This was first published in March 2002

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