Jul 31 2008

Mining for Throughput

The Mine Safety and Health Administration uses WAN optimization to speed access to data for its inspectors.

Sometimes a crisis can lead an IT team to a solution. That’s just what happened for the Mine Safety and Health Administration when it came to finding a fix for degraded service on its wide area network.

George Fesak remembers being in West Virginia on a project related to mining accident that required access to a 12-megabyte Microsoft Word document. At that time, “the performance in West Virginia was just terrible because we were using central storage in Arlington, Va.,” recalls Fesak, director of Program Evaluation and Information Resources for MSHA.

He decided to run a few tests of his own to identify the problem. He began to open the document and hit [Control] [End] to see how long it took to display the last page of the document.

“Everyone told me it was a bandwidth problem. But I tried it on a Sunday, and it took three or four minutes to open that document,” Fesak says. “The real problem was application overhead and latency on the network.”

Meanwhile, the crew working on MSHA’s new mine inspection tracking system called Fesak over and wanted him to see their latest breakthrough, which included a new checklist for inspectors to use.

“I saw that checklist in a Word document and asked the size,” he says. “It was in the same range, approaching 10 to 12MB for a large mine. I smiled and congratulated them and in horror called Syed [Hafeez, Fesak’s deputy director] from a restaurant and said, ‘It’s not going to work when a half-dozen inspectors in a field office try to pull up that checklist over our network.’ ”

“Syed jumped in and dug into it and identified the real problem and solution within two weeks,” Fesak says. “Wide Area Application Services is the solution.”

Cisco WAAS lets MSHA extend its highly secure and available infrastructure and gives users in each remote office the feeling that they are tapping local servers and storage. “In fact, it’s just an appliance that doesn’t have to be managed and backed up, which saves a lot on IT infrastructure and personnel cost,” says Larry Ramsdell, senior federal account executive for the Labor Department at EMC, which has helped the agency retool it storage and network infrastructure.

MSHA was able to install the devices within weeks, and they dovetailed into the existing routing infrastructure. The agency had Cisco and EMC run a train-the-trainers session, and the EMC team then trained MSHA staff.