NAS eases lab's storage overload

General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems lab went from overfilled disk drives to an easily manageable NAS device. Senior engineer Jack Chao described to searchWindowsManageability how he went about finding the right kind of storage for his company's needs.

It's the job of the 1,200 employees of General Dynamics' Advanced Technology Systems (ATS) lab to gather and stockpile research data. Last year, that stockpile of valuable data began to outgrow the company's storage system. That made Jack Chao's job of finding storage space for every file a struggle.

As a senior engineer for the General Dynamics ATS Internal Research and Development (IR&D) division, Chao tests new technologies for a living. So, when the Whippany, NJ-based IR&D needed to find a better way to store its data, Chao set out to test best-of-breed storage products.

At the top of Chao's product evaluation checklist were four criteria: functionality, interoperability, price, and ease of maintenance. The latter feature carried a lot of weight, because Chao needs to spend more time testing technologies than maintaining existing systems. After the product set up, "I want updating to be the only thing I do," he said.

Chao knew that consolidating storage into a central repository would simplify maintenance and management. When Chao began searching for a new solution, IR&D had 252G bytes of data stored on a server farm with 10 hard drives. In researching technologies, he found that the best choices for scalable centralized storage were either network attached storage (NAS) or a storage area network (SAN).

Further research convinced Chao that SAN technology was not a viable option for IR&D. In order to get a SAN to run efficiently, an IT manager has to be extraordinarily knowledgeable about storage networking technology. Administrators must also know how to configure complex switches," he said.

The fact that 100% operating system interoperability is hard to achieve with a SAN troubled Chao, too. Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000, as well as Linux and Solaris, are run on the IR&D network.

Put the drawbacks above together with the fact that a SAN solution would cost many thousands of dollars more than a NAS system, and the choice became obvious to Chao. He then evaluated NAS products from Compaq, HP, EMC, Brocade and Procom Technology. Initial evaluations reveled that all but one of the products were more designed for higher or lower storage volumes than IR&D had. Also, they didn't fit IR&D's tight budget. Surprisingly, the standout product, NetFORCE 1500, came from a small vendor: Irvine, CA-based Procom Technology.

During the six-month test period, Chao discovered that NAS is as easy to manage as a computer. "You just figure out what you want to partition for storage," he said. Further, "the configuration is so basic, it can be up and running in about a day." In fact, Chao only spent half of one day implementing NetFORCE 1500, thanks to advance work done by Procom. The vendor preformatted the NAS' partitions, hard disks and volumes before it was sent to the IR&D lab.

One small authentication problem occurred after the deployment, when Windows 95 users could not cross domains and log on. This glitch was overcome quickly, Chao said.

NetFORCE 1500 has now been connected to a gigabit Ethernet switch failure-free for one year. Housed in a cold, clean and stable environment, the NAS has rarely required Chao's intervention. Updates and backups require very little time.

Another important aspect to his successful storage, he said, is that only the IR&D researchers store data on and can access the NAS. The data is stored separately from the rest of General Dynamics 40,000 other employees' data, who work in business aviation or supplying defense systems for the United States. Chao expects the data to remain around 252G bytes for the foreseeable future because IR&D is a small division.

NetFORCE 1500 costs between $15,000 and $51,000. A higher-end NAS from companies such as Compaq, HP, EMC or Brocade might cost around $500,000. Chao said he is pleased, not to have paid for more functionality than he could ever need. Due to the low maintenance time needed, he also estimated he has saved thousands of dollars on labor costs.

Chao is happy that the NAS' performance validates his purchasing decision. He's also glad that he learned a valuable lesson that will help him be a better technology researcher in the future. Before, he thought that running a bigger company's technology is wiser, he said. "I guess that's not always the case."

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