Ramstein Air Base in Germany recently upgraded its data center so missions would go more smoothly.

Nov 10 2020

Air Force, DISA Invest in Refreshes of Data Center Technology

Total data center refreshes, done all at once or over time, help agencies keep up with modern capabilities.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa recently underwent a major upgrade — not to its fighters and bombers, but to something equally critical: its data centers.

The main operating bases’ hardware and software for the command, also known as USAFE-AFAFRICA, “were at end of life and end of support,” says Scott Watson, European Deterrence Initiative technical solutions planner for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

“New equipment and storage was needed to ensure USAFE-AFAFRICA would be capable of meeting current and future hardware and software requirements.” 

The Air Force is not alone. Across the federal government, in defense and civilian agencies, aging data centers are coming due for a refresh.

The Department of Justice, for example, reports in its fiscal year 2020 budget justification that as part of its overall data center optimization effort, it is “committed to achieving ‘smaller and smarter’ data center infrastructure with improved operational efficiency and overall cost savings.”

Why Data Center Modernization Matters

Older data centers “may be lagging in performance. The hardware may be less reliable and it may fail more often,” says IEEE Fellow Tom Coughlin

“Performance and reliability can be an issue, along with security. The more modern software and hardware infrastructure is more secure, and depending on the system, there may be more support available around security with newer systems.”

For these reasons, data center refresh has been a useful path forward for federal agencies looking to keep existing data centers fit for the long haul. For USAFE-AFAFRICA, the recent data center refresh increased capacity by 20 percent on a system initially built to support 45,000 end users assigned overseas, plus their family members. Modernization encompassed the full scope of the data center environment.

“Each virtual environment hosts base boundary appliances, Internet Protocol routing and switching equipment, data storage and core service applications — the traditional server farm — for NIPRNET/SIPRNET,” Watson says, referring to the military’s nonclassified and classified networks.

Increasing the system’s capacity anticipates “future growth and operational surges in personnel as required for USAFE-AFAFRICA operations.”

EXPLORE: How does virtualization help agencies shrink their environmental footprint? 

Air Force Moves to make Upgrades

In order to build up capacity and improve operations, USAFE-AFAFRICA replaced network equipment and modernized the existing storage and visualization equipment for main operating bases and geographically separated units (GSUs) at 20 locations in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey.

“The upgrade consisted of Cisco Unified Computing System and Nexus 9000 series switches for data center router and switching, Dell EMC Storage systems — Dell EMC Unity, Avamar and Data Domain — and VMware ESXi for hosting the virtual environment,” Watson says.

New requirements and new advances in data center technologies made this an opportune moment for the upgrades. “Over time, more data is shared over online resources, and this requires more data storage space to catalog and maintain the old and new data,” Watson says. At the same time, “storage has become less expensive, with faster access, and we can therefore purchase for current and future needs.”

LEARN MORE: What are the benefits of shared data center services? 

Speed and Scale Come with Tech Improvements 

The Air Force made its technology ­decisions in this case based largely on the promise of enhanced functionality.

Scott Watson, European Deterrence Initiative Technical Solutions Planner, USAFE
Storage has become less expensive, with faster access, and we can therefore ­purchase for current and future needs.”

Scott Watson European Deterrence Initiative Technical Solutions Planner, USAFE

“We considered increased speed, capacity, management and integrated backup solutions to be key elements,” Watson says. “The Cisco Nexus 9000 switches offer speed and features required for the USAFE-AFAFRICA mission, and set USAFE up for future use of Application Centric Infrastructure, bringing in more ­integration and automation.”

The Air Force is using Dell Data Domain/Avamar with Data Protection Suite as the orchestrator for backup and recovery services. “This combination offered cutting-edge data reduction algorithms to ­minimize the backup windows and improve network bandwidth utilization, allowing for complete daily backups,” Watson says.

The Cisco Unified Computing System allows the IT team to manage the network in a holistic fashion and offers simplified management of servers, storage and network. All these advantages — speed, scale, ease of use — help to explain why federal agencies may be seeking to refresh their existing data centers.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how storage area networks help agencies manage massive transactions and specialized workloads.

DISA Sees a Need for Continuous Upgrades

These factors also come into play as the Defense Information Systems Agency seeks to keep its data centers current.Unlike USAFE-AFAFRICA, which took one big bite at a wide range of data center needs, DISA has approached its aging infrastructure with a strategy of continuous and ongoing upgrades.

Since 2016, DISA data centers have supported enterprise-level applications across the Defense Department, including email, mobility capabilities and applications specific to the different armed services. To keep those data centers current, the agency maintains multiple seven- to 10-year contracts for vendor support.

“Our industry partners work to provide capacity, the switches, firewalls, load balancers, the server infrastructure and the different storage infrastructures, such as the storage arrays and network attached storage,” says Tony Purvis, DISA’s chief for computing ecosystem. “Those vendors maintain a technology currency for things that we run within the data centers, so we are always very up to date.”

The agency is near the third iteration of its storage contract, which “will provide new storage capacity with solid-state drives, more throughput on the switches, faster backup capabilities.”

Security is a prime motivator for constant refresh, Purvis says. “The first concern is the ever-growing cyberthreat. If a piece of equipment or software ever becomes outdated, we stop receiving updates and maintenance releases.” 

“Given the cyberthreats we are under,” he notes, “we need to continually receive patches and releases from the vendor.”

The changing app landscape also drives aggressive refresh postures. End users constantly announce new requirements, and data centers must adapt.

“A lot of the mission partners have been taking their own applications hosted within their own data centers and moving them into DISA’s data centers,” Purvis says. “They are also consolidating their Enterprise Resource Planning systems, and they need support. That makes them prime candidates to be hosted in a DISA data center.”

Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer/U.S. Air Force