NASA puts NetApp in the back seat

NASA's Solar Data Analysis Center is changing out its network attached storage (NAS) from Network Appliance for what it described as a more agile set of arrays from Pillar Data Systems to make it easier for the organization to study the sun.

The center, part of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, compiles scientific data from space solar missions. The organization's goal is to understand the interior of the sun, solar wind, the solar atmosphere and solar activity such as flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), according to Joseph Gurman, a facilities scientist.

The organization had been using NAS from NetApp since the mid-1990s, because its products at the time had the best value proposition of low overhead in systems administration time and effort, Gurman said. "Machines tend to be cheaper than people."

However, as the NetApp F840 device aged, the organization began looking at Pillar. While the pricing was similar, a critical feature of the Pillar Axion array was that Pillar was more agile in responding to pricing decreases and capacity increases in commercial off the shelf Serial ATA drives, he said. Pillar also had a slightly better price per terabyte, he said.

Currently, the Pillar equipment is mirroring the 4.5TB to 5TB of data on a NetApp F840, and this week the organization will be switching over to use the Pillar Axiom as the primary and the NetApp as the mirror, Gurman said. As they get a new backup device over the next six months from an undetermined vendor, the NetApp device -- more than three years old -- will be retired, he said.

The Pillar equipment also takes up less space, Gurman said. The NetApp device uses an entire 42U-high rack, while the new devices use one-third of a rack with room for expansion, he said. "We'd like to get the old rack out of here so we have more room to breathe," he said.

In addition to the satellites already in orbit, next month the organization will launch a new mission, STEREO, consisting of two spacecraft that progressively get further apart angularly, which will help scientists learn more about the propagation of solar events, Gurman said. This will produce an additional 10TB to 15TB of new data per year, he said.

Studying the sun is important because events such as flares and CMEs can change the earth's magnetic environment, which can then interfere with communications and electric power transmission and generation, particularly near the poles, Gurman said. For example, an organization running high-altitude aircraft might want to travel close to the poles because the distance is shorter and uses less fuel, making more room for cargo, but would avoid the poles during times of high solar activity so the plane didn't lose communication, he said.

Similarly, in May, 1998, a communications spacecraft was affected by solar events in such a way that 85% of the pager traffic in North America went down -- meaning, for one thing, that the heavily pregnant daughter of one of the solar scientists couldn't page her midwife, Gurman said. Now, communications spacecraft are designed to be less susceptible to magnetic effects, he said.

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