Veterans agency looks beyond EMC for storage, backup

US agency looks to move to multivendor environment

With a 75-year retention requirement and 5PB of data, the US Department of Veterans Affairs faces major challenges when it comes to storing data in its primary datacentre in Austin, Texas.

Now the VA is taking on another challenge: Migrating from an all-EMC solution to a multivendor storage system that uses different devices depending on how quickly data needs to be recovered.

The VA has awarded a US$10 million contract to Vion, a storage systems integrator that will provide Hitachi Data Systems  products capable of storing 2PB of data. Vion, a midsize reseller that is veteran-owned, beat out EMC for the one-year hardware and services contract.

"We have a combination of medical records and beneficiary records that could be called back up for consultations by physicians involved in a legal case," says John Rucker, acting executive director of corporate datacentre operations for VA's Austin Information Technology Centre. "We do have a lengthy storage requirement."

Neither EMC nor Vion would comment on the recent VA contract.

The last time the VA awarded a multi-million dollar storage deal was in 2002 and the award went to EMC. Since then, EMC has dominated the storage environment in VA's main datacentre in Austin as well as its backup datacentres in Philadelphia and Chicago.

"We purchased the EMC Symmetrix systems for disaster recovery and continuity of operations," Rucker says. "It was a reaction in part to 9/11. Up until that time, we were a tape recovery set-up. After 9/11, we realised we needed another solution if people couldn't get on planes and fly tapes to Chicago or Philadelphia."

Now the VA is switching from a single-vendor to a multi-vendor approach, and it is facing the pros and cons of that decision. On the one hand, the agency is glad that it won't be reliant on one company for its mission-critical data storage.

"We won't be tied to any one particular vendor or any one particular technology," Rucker says. "Let's say EMC came up with a leapfrog technology over Hitachi. We're positioned where we can fit that into the mix."

However, the VA will need to buy new storage management software to oversee its EMC and Hitachi storage-area networks (SAN). VA also must invest in training for its staff of 10 dedicated storage administrators, who are well-versed in EMC technology.

With its latest contract award, the VA's Austin datacentre will operate two big storage farms: one with EMC systems and one with Hitachi systems. The agency has an ongoing acquisition to purchase a storage management software package that works with both vendors' gear.

"Our goal with the different vendors is to be able to logically look at all the storage we've got, to be able to virtualise it, and to be able to slice it and dice it as we need it," Rucker says.

Vion is setting up the Hitachi storage systems using a tiered approach, with less expensive, slower disk systems for applications that are less demanding and higher-performing disks for mission-critical applications. Tape will be used for data recovery.

"The highest tier data is vaulted to the other IT centres. The second tier is local mirrored storage and the lowest tier is tape recovery," Rucker says. "We're a disk-to-disk-to-tape environment. At this point, I don't see tape going away. It's cheap. It's reliable. It's proven. We're not looking at totally replacing tape, but we do see it as a tertiary requirement."

The VA is running acceptance tests of the new Hitachi storage systems. By about May next year, it hopes to have selected and installed its new storage management software package.

"The promise of being able to manage multiple vendors' disk storage systems from a single console – it looks like that has become a reality," Rucker says. "We're also looking at the ability for someone in Austin to manage storage in Chicago or Philadelphia. We know we can do that with EMC. We believe we can incorporate that into another manufacturer's SAN."

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