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Weather Channel forecasts improved storage system

Weather Channel forecasts improved storage system

Executives rushing to the airport, nervous brides getting ready for the big day, baseball fans heading to the World Series, resort owners during a holiday weekend. On the surface, these individuals may seem to have nothing in common, but they do share one thing -- a keen interest in the weather.

Providing such folks with information about today's, tomorrow's and even next weekend's weather is the primary mission of Atlanta-based Weather Channel Inc. Making sure that data is up-to-date is the responsibility of Vicki Hamilton, the company's vice president of shared services in IT operations.

Hamilton's tasks have been getting more difficult as the company has expanded its customer base. The firm now delivers weather data to domestic television stations in 77,000 locations that serve 95 million homes. The company has also moved into the international market with Weather Channel Latin America. And for those who prefer online updates, the enterprise's service provides forecast information to 150 Internet sites, including America Online.

As a result, the prognosticator's data volume has been expanding. The company relies on approximately 60 Sun Unix, Microsoft Windows NT and Linux servers to collect information from a variety of sources, such as the National Weather Service. The Weather Channel then parses the information by region, state and city, and sends it along to more than 10,000 servers supporting its affiliates.

The information delivery company had relied on distributed data storage setup, in which each of its 60 servers controlled its own information, but this setup was becoming unwieldy. "With data stored on a number of different servers, there was a great deal of duplication," Hamilton said.

Reliability was another concern. The weather forecasting company forged service-level agreements with clients that specify delivery of local content in a timely manner and include penalty clauses for when content is late. So the storage system needed to be bulletproof, have 100% uptime and offer rapid, almost instantaneous response times. With data volume expanding, it became more and more difficult to meet that requirement.

Consequently, the company decided to install a centralized storage solution in the spring of 2000. After talking with EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM and XioTech, the Weather Channel opted for Hitachi equipment. The decision was made near the end of 2000. "We felt that the Hitachi system offered us more redundancy and reliability than other options," Hamilton said.

The Hitachi system's true copy and shadow image features enable the Weather Channel to make copies and perform data backups without taking a primary system offline. Also, the product's uninterruptible power supply (UPS) helps to ensure that the hardware will be up during small electric hits and, if there is a major outage, that the storage system will function until backup generators kick in.

Another plus is the product's Hi-Track diagnostic and monitoring system. By using a dedicated phone line, the system tracks system status and performance. Should a problem occur, the HDS support team will either take action remotely or dispatch a technician. Often, the support team begins work before the Weather Channel knows a problem is brewing.

In setting up its new system, the company purchased the Hitachi Freedom Storage Lightning 9900 Series Model 9960, Hitachi Freedom SAN, Hitachi Path Manager, Hitachi SANtinel, Brocade's Silkworm 2800 switch, JNI's 1063 adapter, Emulex LP8000 software, Veritas's NetBackup and Veritas Foundation Suite.

Having made the decision to move to the new environment, the Weather Channel had to map out a migration plan. Working with Hitachi's Hi-Track and SAN Implementation Services team, the weather forecaster deployed a three-tiered environment, primarily with Oracle's database management systems, a few Sybase systems, a variety of Web application servers and 12T Bytes of RAID-5 storage that are controlled by the Lightning 9960 and four Brocade Silkworm 2800 switches.

The company started migrating from the old to the new infrastructure in early 2001 and expects to complete the finishing touches this summer. In addition to weather condition information, the central data storage system supports billing, advertising, distribution, human resource, financial and graphics applications.

Although it hasn't completed a formal examination yet, the Weather Channel predicts that the new setup will reduce its data storage expenses. "With our systems now centralized, we can respond faster to new customer requirements than we could in the past," she said.

Rapid responses will be needed because the Weather Channel expects its data storage needs to increase and, in fact, the company recently boosted its available storage from 12T Bytes to 16T Bytes. "During the past two years, our emphasis has been on putting the new system in place," Hamilton concluded. "With that work now close to completion, we expect to focus on finding ways to exploit our new infrastructure in 2003."

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in networking issues. His e-mail address is

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