Magazine article American Banker

A Grip on High-Speed Processing

Magazine article American Banker

A Grip on High-Speed Processing

Article excerpt

In the hit action film "Clear and Present Danger," CIA agent Jack Ryan, played by Harrison Ford, battles South American drug lords with the help of a robotic tape library made by Storage Technology Corp.

In the movie, StorageTek's PowderHorn library loads tape cartridges containing information that helps programmers at the data center decipher a code in one scene, and break into a CIA colleague's computer in another.

The system featured in the movie had glass panels, instead of the standard sheet metal, allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of the swinging robotic arm, equipped with infrared vision and cartridge-clutching "hands."

In reality, visitors to First Data Corp.'s Card Services Group in Omaha get a first-hand look at how the system is used for critical, albeit less exotic, activities.

First Data, the leading credit card processor -- which processes about 450 million on-line transactions a month -- uses robots, capable of selecting and mounting 700 tape cartridges per hour, in its batch processing operations.

At the company's underground processing center, the spectacle of activities and equipment reminds one of NASA's command center during a launch, said Bruce Popken, manager of systems capacity. Television monitors allow visitors to see what the robots "see," he said, and give them an idea of what it would be like to be on a robotic arm moving at speeds topping 60 miles per hour.

Introduced in 1993, the PowderHorn library works with computing platforms ranging from networks of PCs to the largest supercomputers.

First Data has 10 libraries, which run on the company's mainframes.

Fully configured, one PowderHorn holds 6,000 36-track tape cartridges, about 9.6 terabytes of information.

To get an idea of just how much information that is, consider that one terabyte is the equivalent of 20 million document images or 500 million pages of text.

The mind-boggling amount of space in the combined libraries is used for storage of daily processing data and for long-term archiving. Each day, the company's four mainframes capture online transactions and process such bank records as general ledger, collections, settlements and authorizations, and reports, an operation that runs around the clock.

Linked to the mainframes are 319 tape drives, activated when "job requests" or requests for information are made, either to write new information on the tapes, or read information that's already been stored. The company runs 550,000 such job requests per month.

This is where the robots come in. Each one sits in the middle of an eight-sided tape shelf that's 7 1/22 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter.

Day after day, the robots tirelessly locate and grab tapes, and place them into drives.

The robots know which tapes to select by communicating with the mainframes through software.

Once a command to get a tape is issued, the robots use their infrared eyes to "read" bar code labels on the cartridges.

The robots can even share tapes. First Data's libraries are connected so that the arms can pass cartridges to each other, if necessary. If one robot is too busy to play a cartridge, for example, it'll slip the tape, through a door, to a less busy robot neighbor.

As information in the library expires, cartridges are freed up to be reused, another process that's automated.

The computers keep track of the age of information and let the robots know when they can reuse tapes.

From the same basic storage and retrieval function, a number of ancillary applications have been developed. For example, using StorageTek's ViewDirect software, users at First Data can sign onto terminals and have online access to information directly from tapes. With this application, termed "microfiche replacement," high-speed searches can be done, and multiple users can share tape volumes and report databases. …

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