“We have the Greatest Generation ­veteran, now able to get ­information at home online,” says Stephen Roberts, Director of Enterprise Storage, Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jul 18 2019
Data Center

Storage Area Networks Keep Information Close at Hand for VA, EPA

Agencies use SANs to manage massive transactions and specialized workloads.

In the nearly 75 years since the end of World War II, American service members have seen their experience with paperwork change — from writing letters sent through the Postal Service to obtain their service records via mail to tapping on a screen to get that data instantly.

Stephen Roberts, a Marine Corps veteran who retired in 2008, has seen this evolution firsthand. As director of enterprise storage for the Department of Veterans Affairs data centers, he finds himself “facilitating the iPhone generation.”

The VA holds petabytes of data on the nation’s 19.6 million living veterans, and runs more than 1,900 hospitals, clinics and benefits centers around the world, all of which need quick access to data.

“We have the Greatest Generation veteran, now able to get information at home online — which, when they were fighting in World War II, they would have never thought possible,” says Roberts. “We have veterans today coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan who make an appointment online, they’ve got their medical records checked online, they’ve filed for veteran’s status online.”

As vets and their families do this, the data has to keep up. The VA offers such a wide range of services to such a large number of people that their computer systems are doing millions of input-­output cycles per second, per terabyte, and the information needs to be readily available to support that demand.

It’s a tall order, but Roberts and his team manage it with a robust storage area network fabric.


Why the VA Has Invested in SAN Solutions

The VA first turned to a Cisco SAN solution about 15 years ago, during a modernization cycle. The SAN allowed the VA data centers to consolidate three data storage solutions — mainframe, tape and open-system storage — into a single fabric.

The agency chose to implement a SAN that could meet the demands VA employees placed on it. They needed to be able to access data quickly, in large volumes, from a ­variety of operating systems in locations nationwide.

“When it was initiated, it was the most reliable and cost-­effective solution to meet enterprise needs. It’s been very robust and very reliable,” Roberts says. “We’re in the process of doing a lifecycle refresh right now.”

Stephen Roberts, Director of Enterprise Storage, Department of Veterans Affairs
Our mission is to facilitate those who are directly serving veterans, and also be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Stephen Roberts Director of Enterprise Storage, Department of Veterans Affairs

He cites other benefits as well. For example, the SAN fabric can be managed virtually, so members of the team managing it can be found in states across the country.

The SAN also plays nicely with a variety of operating systems that can all access what they need. Roberts likens the SAN fabric to a highway: No matter what make of car you’re driving, the highway will get you where you need to go.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out which agencies are making progress on data center optimization. 

When Agencies Should Use SANs, and When They Should Not

SANs may not be the right fit for everyone. “If you’re doing single-transaction activity, you probably could use a simpler solution,” Roberts says. “If you’re doing a limited volume, and you don’t see much growth, there are other things that are more cost-effective.”

John Kim, who chairs the Networking Storage Forum for the Storage Networking Industry Association, also sees SANs as a solution for a very particular set of needs: when reliability or capacity are key considerations; when duplicate data exists across multiple servers; and when applications require high levels of storage performance, or robust data protection for block storage.

“SANs also typically require a dedicated storage team that has had specialized training,” explains Kim. “If you have IT generalists who must handle servers, networking, IT security and storage, most SANs are not user friendly.”

That said, Kim expects SANs to remain an important part of enterprise storage for years to come.

“It is the most trusted solution for many applications, especially mission-critical databases or database-driven applications,” he says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how metadata helps agencies get value out of vast information stores.

EPA Mixes Cloud Migration with SAN Deployment 

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency moved its entire workforce — at the time, more than 18,000 employees and contractors — to the cloud for email and collaboration. The agency has ­continued to move additional functions and data to the cloud.

“The EPA is fully engaged in an agencywide campaign to migrate end-user data to OneDrive and shared file storage,” says Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesperson. “The cloud platform minimizes storage cost and complexity while maximizing accessibility, availability, integrity, security, records management and discovery capabilities.”

SANs remain an important part of the IT mix at the EPA, however. While the agency is working to limit SAN growth, it still needs this sort of data storage for certain applications.

Abboud shares one example: “EPA’s National Computer Center in Research Triangle Park, in North Carolina, recently extended its SAN infrastructure and software to ensure ‘hot’ data is on the fastest physical tier.”

The EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) likewise continues to use SANs to meet information security requirements and support specialized workloads for scientific data at its 13 facilities.

These SANs need to support isolated and interconnected networks, says Abboud. “Faced with the challenge of refreshing SAN storage for several of these locations, EPA’s ORD disk subsystems managed using virtual SAN software,” he explains. “This solution provided an integrated, cost-efficient, high-performance SAN solution for distributed research laboratories.

“EPA’s private and hybrid cloud platforms will continue to have significant storage area network investments.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how fog computing can help your agency.

SANs Can Deliver Clear Benefits 

Ultimately, for agencies that have the particular needs outlined by Kim, a SAN can be an ideal solution.

“Our mission is to facilitate those who are directly serving veterans, and also be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” says Roberts.

The VA’s SAN fabric allows his team to succeed in that mission; the goal is nothing short of seamlessness.

“You remember the Wizard of Oz? ‘I am Oz, the Great and Powerful’? Well, that’s the application, at the front end,” says Roberts.

“And we’re the little guy in back — ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ — spinning all the wheels, pushing all the buttons, just to make sure you get the big and impressive show up front,” he adds.

Photography by John Davidson

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