Case Study: It's All Sun and SAN at The Weather Channel

Tuesday Apr 29th 2003 by Drew Robb
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To improve its ability to rapidly adjust services to meet customer needs, The Weather Channel consolidated its mix of storage devices into a Storage Area Network with equipment from Hitachi Data Systems.

The accuracy of weather reports has been a standing joke ever since the first meteorologist delivered his initial prognostication. However, comedians may soon need to update their routines. An armada of satellites and floating sensors has joined land-based weather stations in streaming terabytes of daily atmospheric readings.

A new generation of supercomputers is making sense of this flood of data, including the world's fastest, Japan's 35 TeraFLOP Earth Simulator, and the eighth fastest, the 3.34 TeraFLOP Linux cluster at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Forecast Systems Laboratory.

But just as important as improving forecasting accuracy is placing this information in the hands of the organizations and individuals who need it to guide their planning, whether it involve coordinating disaster relief or simply deciding whether to go to the beach that day.

Leading the field is The Weather Channel (TWC), a part of Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Communications, Inc. To improve its ability to rapidly adjust services to meet customer needs that change with the weather, TWC consolidated its mix of storage devices into a Storage Area Network with equipment from Hitachi Data Systems.

"We have achieved significant 'soft' savings, including not only scalability and reliability, but also in effective utilization of personnel in the areas of storage management and reduced churn in the organization," says Vicki Hamilton, vice president of Shared Services and IT Operations.

Page 2: Fractured Storage

Fractured Storage

Over the past 20 years TWC has grown into a multifaceted media enterprise delivering targeted information worldwide. To begin with, there is its flagship cable station, The Weather Channel, which is available to 95 million cable subscribers in North and South America.

Add to this another 18 million people viewing 450 million pages each month on its Web sites -- U.S.'s www.weather.com as well as associated sites in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Brazil, and Latin America. Then there are the radio stations in 250 markets and the more than 150 online (MSNBC.com, Excite, Yahoo, AOL) and wireless (Sprint, Nextel, Palm Computing) organizations that use its weather information.

Finally, there are the more than 100 newspapers that receive customized local weather maps, satellite images, air quality forecasts, and ski or surf reports.

All totaled, TWC tracks, assembles, and disseminates weather information on 80,000 different locations worldwide, steadily feeding the data out to 10,000 customer servers. TWC has strict service level agreements with its clients, so any type of slow or downtime is completely unacceptable. TWC recently redesigned its storage architecture to better meet the growing needs of its clients.

Previously, the company had a broad mix of storage in use. It had two EMC Symmetrix units, a 1.5 Terabyte unit and a .5TB loaner. In addition, most servers had their own direct-attached storage, primarily Sun Microsystems' D1000 disk arrays with Sun A3000 controllers or local RAID arrays for Windows and Novell servers.

In addition, various hardware components from Silicon Graphics, Inc. and other companies had their own vendor-specific disk arrays. While this provided adequate storage capacity, it was a nightmare to manage.

"The primary storage problem was less one of capacity than ease of utilization," says Hamilton. "As projects waxed and waned, the amount of storage allocated to a given server was often inappropriate, and a considerable amount of disk space was either wasted or physically moved from server to server to accommodate changing requirements."

TWC, therefore, launched a search to find a suitable replacement. It evaluated products from MTI Technology Corp. of Tustin, Calif., Sun, IBM, EMC, and others. Selection criteria included price/performance, expandability, supportability, data protection, and performance. In the end, the company went with a Hitachi Freedom Storage Lightning 9900 Series Model 9960.

"The Hitachi was the hands-down winner," Hamilton explains, "with twice the performance of the nearest competitor, no single points of failure, and layered redundancy such as dual FC-AL (Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loops -- a high-speed serial bus standard) to the spindles."

Page 3: Meeting Expectations

Meeting Expectations

Although the 9960 scales up to 88TB, The Weather Channel only needed 12TB to start with. The storage units, of course, were just part of the overall SAN setup. Four Brocade Communications Systems Silkworm 2800 switches route the server traffic. Emulex Corp. (Costa Mesa, Calif.) LP8000 and JNI Corp. (San Diego) JNI 1063 Host Bus Adapters completed the hardware acquisitions.

"We sidestepped a lot of potential zoning headaches by dedicating specific Hitachi ports and Brocade switches for use by Windows and Novell operating systems," says Hamilton, "effectively creating parallel SANs front-ending the array."

To manage the SAN, TWC continued using VERITAS Software Corp.'s storage management software, Foundation Suite, and its NetBackup program, but also added several specific pieces of Hitachi software, including its SANtinel, CruiseControl, and ShadowImage products. With these in place, Hamilton says that the company was able to greatly improve the speed with which it could respond to customer requests.

"Satisfying ad-hoc requests for the odd few-hundred gig can now be filled in less than an hour," she explains, "as compared to the days it typically required to plan 'from what server do I borrow disk and when can I shut that server down to do it' games."

The other key element -- ensuring reliability -- is solved by the 9960 sending status and alert information to Hitachi's support center. If the support staff is able to, they fix any problems remotely; otherwise, they contact TWC's data center staff in Atlanta and instruct them on how to address the issue locally.

Once the SAN was up and running, The Weather Channel added another cabinet with 4TB RAID-5 storage, 16GB cache, and four additional Fibre Channel ports to meet future expansion needs.

As with any major IT project, some problems did crop up during the installation. The Hitachi 9960 was online within the first week of initial power on, but there were some difficulties with migrating some of the servers over to the SAN, primarily in the area of making the HBA drivers work correctly. Hamilton also says that better planning and facility requirement definitions would have made everything go smoother. Nevertheless, the project has achieved its goal.

"The 9960 has performed flawlessly and has very much met our expectations," she says. "Our ability to be responsive to our customers has improved 10,000%."


» See All Articles by Drew Robb


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