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Retailers struggle with data growth

Dealing with growth, keeping costs down and planning ahead for seasonal spikes are the challenges for IT managers in retail.

As the National Retail Federation holds its annual conference this week in New York City, we interviewed IT managers in the retail sector about their most pressing storage challenges. The biggest one, according to users, is growth. Growth of data, growth of stores, growth of products people buy and growth of information about those people.

Most IT managers in the retail sector struggle to keep up with the Walmarts by keeping ahead of the storage demand and having the backup capabilities to safeguard data. To manage growth, IT managers are looking to reduce total cost of ownership by consolidating data, creating a tiered storage infrastructure and purchasing better data management tools.

One bit of planning that all retail IT managers have to do is prepare for the holiday spike that occurs in the final quarter of every year. Shawn Schwegman, vice president of IT at, a Salt Lake City-based online retailer, said his biggest challenge is factoring how much traffic the site will get ahead of time. "By the end of the year, our data will triple from what it was the previous January. As an online retailer, uptime is critical. If you don't plan your storage accordingly, you lose out on orders."

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Overstock is on the fast track, doubling in size each year, so Schwegman said its storage deployments have been rapid. "We go from thought to implementation in three months. Recently, Overstock went from a NAS environment to a SAN after Schwegman had a "horrible experience" using NAS filers from NetApp. "We got caught up in the NAS hype in mid-2003 and it was a bad decision. The performance, reliability and customer support from NetApp was bad." Schwegman said the NetApp boxes just couldn't handle Overstock's data load, and this led to outages. "It was an administrative nightmare," he added.

Overstock switched to a SAN this year and now keeps critical Web site and inventory applications on three DMX arrays from EMC Corp., doing synchronous replication between the three in different locations. For backup, Overstock uses a NEO4000 tape library from Overland Storage Inc. "With NetApp it was taking our Web pages 2.3 seconds to load," said Schwegman. "On the first day we went live with the EMC SAN, it took the page 1.6 seconds to load."

Overstock is currently looking at an EMC Clariion for staging data before it gets backed up to tape, as well as for storing less critical data like e-mails and images. This kind of tiered storage infrastructure is growing more common in all data centers, not just in retail.

Need for equipment upgrades and consolidation

Boscov's, a full-service department store chain headquartered in Reading, Pa., is an IBM shop that uses two Shark arrays and an IBM MagStar tape library.

Joe Poole, Boscov's manager of technical services said that because retail has had a rough few years, upgrading equipment has not been a priority. "Instead of buying better tape drives, we've had to use more tapes," he said. Not that Boscov's hasn't been growing. The chain has been adding two or three new stores every year, with a total of 41 stores through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. "The amount of disk we use for storage has doubled every two years," said Poole.

To keep up with this pace, Boscov's is planning to purchase a DS8000 Shark array to replace one of its older Sharks and consolidate more disk. The company also plans to add faster tape drives to the MagStar. "The data is more detailed now so there's more of it. It's not just 'we're selling men's shirts in a certain size', there's now data on the color, size, design, style and region where they're selling," said Poole.

Along with storing inventory and transactional data, Poole has found that information about customers, which is used for marketing and analysis is more common now than ever. "Ten years ago, you couldn't afford to keep all the customer information we keep now. But disk is cheaper and smaller, so a lot of our disk space is used for CRM applications that help Boscov's buyers analyze who's purchasing what."

Another IT Manager, at a leading retail chain who preferred not to be named, has a heterogeneous tiered storage infrastructure with equipment from IBM, EMC, and Hitachi, but said he lacks automation tools to move data between the tiers. This manager also said he is looking at provisioning tools to manage all his different subsystems and mentioned AppIQ Inc., CreekPath Systems and EMC as vendors he is looking at.

Jay Krone, director of Clariion platforms at EMC, sells to the retail sector and has seen more stores consolidating and implementing tiered storage for better management of backup and restore. This streamlined approach makes sense in retail, an industry that has to be frugal.

"Other than granddaddys like WalMart and Sears, retailers don't make a lot of money, so they are maniacal about controlling costs. So you will see retailers consolidating as much as possible," Krone said.

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