US veterans agency looks beyond EMC for multi-million storage deal

With a 75-year retention requirement and 5 petabytes of data, the US Department of Veterans Affairs faces major challenges

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

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

The VA has awarded a $10 million contract to Vion, a storage systems integrator that will provide Hitachi Data Systems products capable of storing 2 petabytes 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," explains John Rucker, acting executive director of corporate data center operations for VA's Austin Information Technology Center. "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 data center in Austin as well as its backup data centers 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's 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.

It's a good idea for enterprises like VA to buy from more than one supplier for critical IT components including storage, even if it increases costs for integration, staffing and training, says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of FedSources, a market research firm that tracks U.S. government IT purchases.

"The theory is that the continuing price competition and the performance competition that comes from keeping vendors on their toes might offset some of the additional costs of carrying two vendors," Bjorklund says.

With its latest contract award, the VA's Austin data center 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 disk for mission-critical applications. Tape will be used for data recovery.

"The highest tier data is vaulted to the other IT centers. 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's Austin data center is a fee-for-service center, and it charges less money to its customers for the lower performance storage systems. "The difference in payment is a couple dollars per gigabit, which adds up," Rucker says. "Storage tiering is something our customers want."

Although it chose Vion for its latest storage deal, the VA expects to have a significant ongoing relationship with EMC.

"The Symmetrix boxes are not going away," Rucker says. "I see us running heterogeneous SANs from different manufacturers and managing them like one logical SAN."

The VA is running acceptance tests of the new Hitachi storage systems. By next spring, 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."

VA says it's less risky to deploy a multi-vendor strategy than to be an all-EMC shop, even though it's difficult to find experienced staff that is familiar with large-scale storage systems from both EMC and Hitachi.

"It's hard for me to envision an EMC or a Hitachi going out of business, but it's not as hard for me to envision that than it was a few years ago," Rucker says. "Tying yourself to one vendor can be a risky proposition."

The ultimate goal for VA is storage virtualisation. With the push towards cloud computing, VA hopes to eventually provide storage capacity on demand and in a rapidly allocated fashion. "We have had situations where we've been asked to stand up [servers] in 48 hours and provision storage for them," Rucker says.

VA's Austin data center also supports the General Accounting Office, the National Archives and Records Administration, NASA, the Department of Justice, the General Services Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. The center supports more than 100 customer applications including financial management, payroll, human resources, logistics, medical records, eligibility benefits and supply functions.

Approximately 80% of the Austin center's storage capacity is dedicated to the VA. "The VA is our largest customer and our most demanding," Rucker says.

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Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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