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NAS is picture-perfect

Lincoln County turned to NAS when its GIS project started eating up its storage system and IT budget.

NAS is picture-perfect
NAS handles Lincoln County's digital imaging glut

by Maxine Kincora

Lincoln County turned to NAS when its GIS project started eating up its storage system and IT budget.

A picture used to be worth a thousand words. Now it's worth about 400M bytes. The large storage appetite of digital photographs began to eat up too much of the IT budget at the Land Records Department of Lincoln County, Wisc. IT administrator Joel Lang thought that a Storage Area Network (SAN) might be the answer, until he happened upon a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) demo.

Digital photography is the linchpin of Lincoln County's land records modernization plan. The Land Records Department's Geographical Information System (GIS) unit is taking detailed photographs of sections of the county's 24 townships. These images are stored digitally with other information -- deeds for land use planning, zoning and tax purposes.

The GIS project put a heavy burden on the department's storage system and its administrator. "Some individual GIS photo files are huge, over 400M bytes," says Lang, computer services administrator for Lincoln County's computer services department. "With the modernization plan, the GIS unit expects to double its data storage needs every year."

The increased data loads were overloading the Land Records Department's file server-based storage system. The department's Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant file servers running Windows NT were constantly reaching maximum hard drive capacity, largely due to digital imaging demands. "We kept adding new servers to handle the greater load," says Lang. That tactic was becoming costly, in terms of space taken up by the servers, labor required to add and maintain more servers and purchasing costs. Also, each addition required downtime for existing servers.

Looking for alternatives, Lang investigated SANs. He rejected that technology on several counts. "The SAN tied us to proprietary hardware," says Lang. "I didn't want to tackle the interoperability problems inherent with SANs." Just about the time when Lang nixed SANs, a nearby consultant invited him to a demonstration of NetForce NAS, an appliance server from Irvine, Calif.-based Procom Technology, Inc. "I brought home an evaluation unit and never sent it back," says Lang.

After a 30-day evaluation, Lang found that NetForce met all of the Land Records Department's needs. "Usually, you have to sacrifice some functionality to get the rest of the things you want," says Lang. "In this case, that didn't happen."

With NetForce, the Land Records Department didn't lose the volume share security it had with the ProLiant servers. Also, the department could continue to use Microsoft's network file system, Common Internet File System (CIFS), to access data.

While there were no losses in switching to NetForce, there were significant gains in availability, scalability and performance.

NetForce's high-performance, 64-bit file system consumes only four percent of the CPU when transferring files that used 70 percent of other file servers' CPU.

Server downtime was decreased by NetForce's RAID architecture, which includes a battery backup for cache and global hot sparing for high availability. "When we brought it in here, I was literally unplugging hard drives and power supplies just to see what it would do," says Lang. It automatically went into its failover modes and did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Most importantly, one NetForce unit is able to handle the department's current storage load of 30G bytes and can scale up to 730G bytes. New units can be added without taking any servers down.

The fact that NAS is a standalone unit that's not dependent upon the server or any specific network card is another plus. "You can move it to a whole different segment on your network just by changing the IP address," says Lang. The ease of NAS setup and maintenance was a bonus. "I took it out of the box and within an hour we had it running on the network," says Lang. "That could never happen with a SAN."

The initial NetForce deployment was done one department at a time. First, came the main file server that held Word and Excel documents. "We tested out the permissions, the backup and the throughput," Lang says. The deployment went without a hitch.

Some handholding was required when the GIS department files were switched over. "These imaging files are so important and so huge that the department gets really nervous when you start moving things," says Lang. Luckily, the anxiety was baseless. Nothing was lost, and now the GIS staff can store and access the images on NetForce more quickly than they could on the old file server system.

For additional information about Procom, visit its Web site.

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