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EMC system serving Va. breaks down

State has to halt driver’s license services at 74 offices

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 31, 2010

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A breakdown in a data storage system made by EMC Corp. of Hopkinton has forced the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to stop issuing driver’s licenses and state ID cards at its 74 offices, and caused significant disruptions at two dozen other state agencies.

“Sixty-five hundred people a day are being turned away from DMV offices,’’ said Melanie Stokes, a department spokeswoman. Stokes said the agency’s computers would not go online before tomorrow. But the problem affects only the issuing of new licenses and other services at the department’s offices. Residents can renew licenses through an automated phone line or at the Virginia department’s website.

Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, the prime contractor in a 10-year, $2 billion program to overhaul the Virginia state government computer system, launched in 2005, chose EMC to design the system’s storage area network. The EMC-made equipment houses the information used to manage the operations of many Virginia state agencies.

A major portion of the network shut down on Thursday after some of the EMC gear malfunctioned. As many as 400 server computers in various government departments relied on the storage network and were knocked offline.

Both Northrop Grumman and EMC declined to comment, directing all inquiries about the breakdown to the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which oversees all of that state’s government computer systems. According to the agency’s website, EMC said that Thursday’s breakdown was unprecedented. “The manufacturer reports that the system and its underlying technology have an exemplary history of reliability, industry-leading data availability of more than 99.999% and no similar failure in one billion hours of run time,’’ the website said.

“The storage unit has been repaired and has been since the weekend,’’ said agency spokeswoman Marcella Williamson. “However, we have to make sure the data is correct.’’ The agency is working with each affected state agency to ensure that no files were corrupted when the EMC storage system broke down. Stokes said that the verification process for Department of Motor Vehicles files would take up to 24 hours, and had not begun as of yesterday afternoon.

Zeus Kerravala, a data storage analyst at Yankee Group in Boston, said such a high-profile breakdown could undermine EMC’s credibility with large businesses and government agencies. “I think it’s extremely important for them,’’ said Kerravala. “When you see a failure of this magnitude, and their inability to get a customer like the state of Virginia up and running almost immediately, all companies ought to look at that and raise their eyebrows.’’

Kerravala said companies and governments should use storage systems from more than one company, or subscribe to “cloud storage’’ services run by outside contractors. In a cloud system, data is stored at remote locations and accessed over the Internet. EMC aggressively markets cloud storage services.

But Kerravala warned that there needs to be more reassurance that cloud services are secure and reliable before they can be trusted by large businesses and government agencies. “This is where cloud needs to prove itself,’’ he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the firm that is redesigning the system. The company is Northrop Grumman Corp.