SEC accelerating file backup process

Within the next month, the Securities and Exchange Commission will make a major change in its Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval (EDGAR) system, and if all goes well, no one will notice a thing.

Working with Bell Atlantic Federal, the SEC is updating the way it backs up all the information in the EDGAR system: changing from storage tapes transported manually to using a fiber-optic network link. This link will ensure that the backup is instantaneous, instead of taking as much as a day.

"What we needed was a way to replicate the data on both sides," said Rick Heroux, EDGAR manager at the SEC. "We want to be able to switch over instantly and have it be completely transparent to the user."

Companies nationwide submit all the forms and documentation required by SEC regulations every day to the EDGAR site in Northern Virginia. The SEC receives as many as 1,000 filings each day, ranging in size from 2K to 12M. During the busy seasons, that number can be as high as 8,000 filings per day.

This information is absolutely critical to the SEC's mission of regulating and monitoring the securities market, so the agency maintains a "hot site" backup of the system in Washington, D.C., that they can bring up instantly if the main system goes down.

Getting the data from the Virginia site to the D.C. site was not a very technical process. "If we had a problem and we wanted to cut over to the backup, we had to take the tapes and run them down to D.C. and put them in the system.... That process was, at minimum, a four-hour process," Heroux said. "So [EDGAR] could be down for four hours or a day."

Once the new network is in place, the backup process will be instantaneous, leaving no lag time as data is transferred between the two sites, Heroux said. If the main site goes down, users automatically will be switched to the backup and will have no idea that there has been a change.

The five-year contract puts in place a fiber network that will transfer data at a rate of 200 megabits/sec using IBM Corp.'s Enterprise System Connection (ESCON) protocol, according to Tom Catania, a system engineer working on the project.

The network will link the two SEC sites, and there will be a single repeater at a Bell Atlantic site to boost the signal across the extended distance.

The new system is a first for Bell Atlantic Federal, although the parent company has put in place extension networks for several commercial customers. The company decided to go with the fiber network instead of an Asynchronous Transfer Mode network because the SEC needed the speed of a fiber connection, and ATM does not work well with the ESCON protocol, Catania said.

The tapes will not disappear entirely from the picture, Heroux said. "We will still back it up on tape, naturally, but this allows us to get out of the manual process," he said.

The SEC plans for the new connection to be useful for years to come. By July 2000, the SEC will have transferred its filing formats from ASCII to the Internet-based Hypertext Markup Language and Adobe Systems Inc.'s Portable Document Format. The extra capacity inherent in the 200 megabits/sec connection will enable the agency to accommodate these larger files, Heroux said. "We've sized the pipe between our main site and our backup site to handle that growth," he said. "We're set for a good long time."

In the meantime, the instant backup will free up a lot of time for EDGAR engineers and programmers that can be spent improving system performance and adding new features, Heroux said.

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