Air Force Unit Embraces Storage Virtualization

Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment combats unpredictable demand, cost constraints, and the need for flexibility with OnStor's virtual NAS system

November 1, 2008

4 Min Read
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The U.S. Air Force's Center for Engineering and the Environment (AFCEE), located at Brooks City-Base, near San Antonio, has a mission as broad as the Air Force itself. In addition to its wide range of core responsibilities, which include the process of cleaning up bases closed under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, it provides position papers, studies, and engineering support and manages contracts with a wide variety of service providers. It even builds base housing for Air Force personnel. In addition, according to Ralph Miles, network administrator and information systems security officer for AFCEE, the organization must support Air Force-wide IT demands.

The result is that Miles and his staff never know exactly what to expect next in terms of requirements for storage. And Miles also must make sure that the mission-critical information that his organization stores is constantly backed up to an emergency recovery site at a remote location and that Air Force offices and personnel can have access to the data he stores from anywhere in the world.

"My requirements can leap in one day by 10 terabytes," Miles said. That means there's no way to anticipate storage demand in advance and quickly procure enough capacity to meet those demands. Instead, Miles and his team have moved to an environment flexible enough to meet nearly any demand.

AFCEE does this by using a Bobcat storage gateway from OnStor, Inc. that provides remote access and virtual storage on its servers. The gateway provides access to AFCEE's clusters of Dell servers, and in addition, provides storage virtualization. The organization has another OnStor Bobcat gateway and attached storage at the remote backup site. Miles noted that he uses object-oriented security tokens from Sharepoint and plans to add server virtualization using VMware.

The OnStor gateway can support up to 32 shares per physical file server, and it can manage a network-wide pool of storage that can include everything from existing network-attached storage (NAS) appliances to existing storage area networks (SANs). Each user, in effect, sees a drive letter reflecting the amount of storage they're allocated, but has no way to know where the data is physically located, or even if it's all on one device or storage target. The amount of space any user or process gets can be controlled by the administrator, or it can be provisioned dynamically according to need."We have 500 people that we give 15 gigabytes each to," Miles said. "Before this I'd have to set up a server to publish a file share so that the staff could use it. Now with the NAS gateway, I can use a virtual server that doesn't need any more hardware or power," Miles noted.

In fact, Miles said he's been able to reduce the power requirements for his data center by moving to virtualized storage, because he needs fewer servers and can consolidate his storage hardware. By taking these steps, he has also cut costs by using reliable, mid-level hardware with a good track record. "To be a good steward of the taxpayers' dollars we want a good server with good reliability," Miles said.

Using virtualized storage from OnStor has also allowed AFCEE to move to more efficient storage in other ways as well, most notably the ability to abandon the use of the Microsoft NTFS file system. "Something happened to one of our servers," Miles said, "and we had to run 'Chkdsk.' It took three weeks."

The AFCEE virtualized storage implementation is a major step in the organization's efforts to keep up with its customer needs. However, it's only one step in what has been a long road that started with a Wang email system, to systems that supported shared storage and printing, to PC-based networks, and then to servers with storage area networks.

The process isn't finished, according to Miles. He has plans to use his new OnStor gateways to support iSCSI storage so that he can move away from Fibre Channel and into the world of Ethernet. He is already using Gigabit Ethernet to connect his data center to his off-site backup storage, or his COOP site, as it's called by the government (for continuity of operations). Miles is building out a parallel Ethernet network that will let him use a less expensive, less complex Ethernet network throughout his operation.Because the OnStor Bobcat supports Gigabit Ethernet in addition to Fibre Channel, he won't have to lose any of the approximately $200,000 he has spent on the upgrade, but in the process he'll get simpler, less expensive, and more efficient operations.

But one thing is for sure -- as the demands on his data center grow and the complexity of his responsibilities grows with it -- Miles expects his new capabilities to accommodate the demands and growth. "It's like cooking a pot of beans," Miles said. "If you know how to cook for a family of four, but then you get recruited to cook for 500, things change."

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