Case Studies

The Final Frontier

Paragon Space Development creates hospitable habitats on Earth, in orbit and beyond.
This story appears in the June 2010 issue of BizTech Magazine.
Stephen Mitchell and Taber MacCallum say extreme aerospace engineering requires high-performance computing.
Credit: Steve Craft

What do blasting biology experiments into orbit, working on a new space vehicle, contributing to a next-generation spacesuit and safeguarding U.S. Navy divers from toxin-laden waters have in common? They are all projects of Paragon Space Development, a Tucson, Ariz., firm that engineers sophisticated life-support and thermal systems for the harshest conditions on Earth, in orbit and as far away as Mars.

Since its 1993 founding, Paragon has grown to 90 employees spread across four time zones. Over time, the company has completed an impressive array of projects to become a leading extreme-aerospace innovator. In fact, NASA recently dubbed Paragon a “space pioneer” and awarded it $1.4 million to develop a compact, universal air revitalization system. In addition to performing a half-dozen sophisticated air quality and cabin management functions within a relatively small box, the system will be manufacturer-agnostic — a key goal for NASA as it moves toward building more cost-effective space vehicles.

“We’re an equal-opportunity life-support provider,” quips Taber MacCallum, Paragon CEO and co-founder. “We’ll keep anybody alive.”

Paragon has partnered with a who’s who of industry trailblazers through the years. These include Bigelow Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Oceaneering International, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Astrotech (formerly SPACEHAB) and Rocketplane Global, as well as U.S. government agencies such as NASA and the Navy.

With its roots in the first closed-loop, Earth-based habitat experiment, Biosphere 2, Paragon began making its name during the mid-1990s. Back then, the firm’s patented aquatic life-support chamber, the Autonomous Biological System (ABS), provided a home for the first complete animal lifecycles to occur in space.

Because the early ABS experiments occurred in cooperation with Japan, Paragon eventually landed a project designing the environmental controls for a closed ecological experiment facility in that country. That facility included plant, animal and human habitat chambers.

“Sometime after the Japan facility, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory contacted us about putting a little greenhouse on Mars,” MacCallum recalls. “Essentially, we had to develop controls that created an inverse life-support system — to provide carbon dioxide and take away the oxygen the plant was making — to keep it from exploding and burning itself up.”

Controlling the greenhouse led to developing and controlling a 2,500-acre saltwater agro-forestry project and housing community in Africa. “A commercial company asked us to model carbon flow in mangrove trees off the coast of Eritrea,” MacCallum says. “They needed to prove to the United Nations that they could sequester carbon.”

Tech-Aware

Not surprisingly, extreme aerospace engineering requires high availability computing from concept through manufacturing. Hence, computers are ubiquitous at Paragon’s 16,000-square-foot headquarters, as well as at its Denver, Houston and Washington, D.C., satellites.

“Regardless of job title or function, everyone here uses some kind of computing device,” says Stephen Mitchell, director of management information systems. “If there were a significant server outage, all work would basically stop.”

Complicating matters are double-digit business and data growth. “In addition to expanding our network to accommodate dozens more local and remote employees, our analysis applications create very large data sets,” Mitchell notes. “We can generate a 20-gigabyte file in nothing flat.”

To stay ahead of the curve, IT integrates tightly with company leadership. “Our direct involvement in the contract review process ensures IT impacts are identified and addressed early on,” says Mitchell.

Recently, this meant going to bat for a storage area network. “Initially we approached the SAN presentations from a technical aspect,” recalls Mitchell. But company executives struggled with the concepts until Mitchell changed tactics. “I used the analogy of a high-performance two-seater convertible versus a decked-out minivan,” he explains. “While the convertible may be excellent when you’re single, it’s inadequate once you start a family — you need more cargo capacity and other amenities.”

This explanation helped management understand the need. “It was a real ‘wow’ moment,” Mitchell reports. “And it was a good communication lesson for the IT team.”

After evaluating several options, Paragon ultimately selected a NetApp SAN. “NetApp offered us better horsepower, which will allow us to offload CPU-intensive analysis jobs onto the SAN,” says Mitchell. “Such jobs can cripple a workstation for several days, so moving them to the SAN will allow people to remain productive.”

Other benefits include data deduplication, which Paragon estimates will reduce its data footprint by 30 percent to 40 percent. The SAN also will eventually permit cost-effective data replication to a distant location, reducing reliance on backup tape.

“After we complete the primary SAN install in 2010, we plan to purchase a secondary SAN and make core network switch upgrades in 2011,” Mitchell says. “This will allow us to mirror data between sites.”

Server consolidation is already proving strategic and cost-effective. “By starting early enough we’ve avoided any mission-critical failures,” Mitchell asserts. “Plus, with fewer physical devices, we can keep our IT staff and overhead low. And, we can scale to meet our growth needs at all of our locations.”

Another benefit is that in the long term, the company will purchase fewer physical servers, which will reduce hardware, maintenance and energy consumption costs, he continues. The overhaul will lead to other leading-edge technologies, such as telepresence, enabling secure real-time collaboration among Paragon’s far-flung teams.

“Despite initial skepticism, everyone’s dying for our new SAN now,” deadpans MacCallum. “Seriously, it’s a strategic move for us because a reality of our world is that we must change fast. Our IT department is truly enabling us to stay ahead of our competition.”

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