Magazine Article | September 1, 2002

Are Your Servers Begging For Mercy?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine
Integrated Solutions, September 2002

How quickly can you respond to a customer request for information? In ten minutes? Five minutes? Less than a minute? Your goal is a few seconds, so ten minutes is way too long. At the office of the Auditor/Controller-Recorder (ACR) for the County of San Bernardino, CA, delays as long as 15 minutes were common. A key part of the ACR's function is providing land transaction records to the public. Companies that do property title searches are particularly frequent users. Since land records in San Bernardino County date back to the late 1800s, the archive is huge - and so are many of the individual records. The land transaction record for a property with many liens against it can have as many as 900 pages. That's a lot of material to pull up when someone comes in requesting to see a complete record.

For many years, the documents were stored on microfilm. A few years ago, the ACR's office implemented an imaging system to digitize all incoming records. It also converted the microfilmed records dating from 1980 or later to digital images. (The office is in the process of converting the rest.) Those digital records were stored on direct attached optical jukeboxes and served up to customer-facing workstations. Because of throughput limitations, however, large records took several minutes to load. During the delay, impatient customers would re-request the same records.

As requests piled up, the image server periodically ran out of memory and crashed. "When huge backlogs caused system crashes, our IT technicians had to clear all of the queues and restart the system," explains Patrick Honny, information systems manager for the ACR's office. "Then, they had to go out front and tell customers to stop repeatedly requesting the same records." It's one thing for a business to aggravate paying customers. It's quite another for a government agency to aggravate taxpaying customers.

When ACR Larry Walker authorized a system upgrade, Honny's team went looking for a new file serving solution. "The system had to be fast and scalable yet easy-to-maintain and affordable," says Honny. "To address all of those conditions, we decided to move everything over to magnetic disk storage in a NAS [network attached storage] design."

Plug In Reliability
For its online storage, the office now relies on a NetFORCE 3100 NAS appliance from Procom Technology. A Cisco switch connects the appliance to a 2 Gb Ethernet LAN. Designed to handle both block-level and file-level data transfer, the 3100 has nearly eliminated the waiting period for a requested document to appear on screen at a public workstation. "Files are now up in seconds," says Honny. "Because there's no wait, users don't think the system is locking up. So, we don't have any more crashes from people overloading the system with redundant requests."

In addition to speeding document retrieval, the Procom unit has enabled the ACR's office to avoid unplanned downtime. That's because the RAID (redundant array of independent disks) 5-configured 3100 offers hot failover and hot swappable drives. "With the 3100, there are essentially no management issues for our IT folks," says Honny. "The unit is plug and play and basically just hums away in the dark. We've had only one drive problem to deal with, and it was an easy swap of the global hot spare."

NAS For Speed, NAS For Growth
For the ACR's office, just as important as speed and reliability is scalability. As it moves forward with digital imaging, the office intends to continue storing documents on NAS devices. Migrating the post-1980 digital images from optical to magnetic storage has already brought 20 million images - close to 6 TB worth of data - to the 3100. When the entire archive is converted, it will require 20 TB of online storage. Being prepared also means being able to accommodate the 5,000 new, frequently multiple-page documents pushed through the imaging system each day. "For growth purposes, we already plan to attach a second NAS box and split some of the load," Honny says.