Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)

Users from the energy and entertainment sector are putting a lid on data explosions

September 18, 2007

4 Min Read
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From the challenges of building a mammoth storage system for tackling blackouts to managing data at one of the world's largest theme parks, IT managers at last week's Networkers Live event in Anaheim described how they are coping with some unique storage challenges.

For San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), this involves building a storage system to outstrip even the Library of Congress, which is said to contain between 20 and 40 Tbytes of information. "It's a tremendous amount of data," explained Steven Knaebel, the firm's IT manager, adding that this is tied to an ambitious $1.7 billion, five year energy project called SmartMeter. (See HP Maps Greener Data Center.)

At the moment, PG&E collects usage data from its 10 million customers by reading their meters manually each month, although recent blackouts and brownouts have forced the firm to rethink this strategy. (See When the Lights Went Down in the City, Redbus Colo Stays Live in Blackout, and Blackout Looms for NYC.) "We're going to be collecting information every hour for residential customers and every 15 minutes from commercial customers, so that we can determine what their load is at different times of the day," said Knaebel.

SmartMeter uses a monitor fitted onto a customer's power meter to record usage data, which is sent back to PG&E and its substations via satellite links. The firm has 35,000 SmartMeter devices already in place and is currently installing the technology at a rate of 2,000 a day. In early September this will increase to 4,000 a day, rising to 10,000 sometime in 2008. By 2010, Knaebel expects to have SmartMeter installed at between 10 and 14 million homes and businesses.

But a project on this scale brings with it a unique set of storage challenges. "It's a monster -- its larger than the Library of Congress," said Knaebel, adding that PG&E typically uses IBM p590 devices for storage. (See IBM Unveils Next-Gen Supercomputer, IBM Lobs Benchmark at Sun, and Big Blue Launches Big Green.)Although the exec was unable to say exactly which pieces of storage technology will be used in his SmartCenter data warehouse, he is already coming to grips with the issue of data growth. "The business had asked us to store [data] for up to seven years, and we're going back to the business to ask do they need us to store it for that length of time," he told Byte and Switch. "That would significantly reduce the physical storage requirements."

The energy firm is also looking to free up space in its 40,000 square-foot San Francisco data center by consolidating 319 Unix servers onto a handful of IBM p590s. "We're in progress with that right now," said Knaebel, explaining that this could shave up to $2.8 million off PG&E's own annual energy bills, as well as create space for additional hardware.

Another organization wrestling with a data explosion is Disney, which stores about 19 Tbytes to support its West Coast operations and its flagship Disneyland theme park. "Disk space is a big issue for us, because we're growing," said Allen Fazio, CIO of the Disneyland Resort, explaining there were over 18 million visitors to the Anaheim, Calif., site last year alone.

Rather than deal with this in-house, Disney opted to outsource its IT infrastructure to IBM and systems integrator ACS back in 2005. "With IBM focused on that side of my business, I don't have to worry about the latest hardware and software, I can focus on our guests," said Fazio, explaining that Disneyland uses a mixture of IBM NAS and SAN solutions at a data center in Columbus, Ohio.

IBM also hosts an array of kits from other vendors, including HP and CRM specialist Teradata, which Disneyland uses to mine customer data for its marketing efforts. (See LSI Powers Teradata, Teradata Receives SAP Certification, and Greenplum Eyes Data Warehouses.)Like many organizations, Disneyland has taken a cautious approach to its storage outsourcing, and Fazio told Byte and Switch that he does not want to rush the process. (See GM Goes for New Outsourcing Model and IBM Picks Up $500M GM Deal.) "We have already moved our logistics systems and [recently moved] our core financial and HR systems [but] the last things that we will move are the systems closest to our guests."

The exec hopes to have all of Disneyland's systems moved over to its outsourcer within two years, with ticketing, point of sales, and the theme park's FastPass technology for shortening wait times the last to go.

The CIO admitted that keeping all this customer data safe is on top of his list of priorities. "Security is our utmost concern because people trust our name," he said, explaining that there are around a quarter of a million annual passholders to Disneyland alone. "We have everything from DMZs to encryption -- we have a little bit of everything," he added, without going into specifics. (See He Who Knows the Most, Wins and Five Security Flaws in IPv6.)

— James Rogers, Senior Editor Byte and Switch

  • Affiliated Computer Services Inc. (ACS) (NYSE: ACS)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Teradata

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