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Bank analytics firm deposits storage on X-IO ISE arrays

The need for reliable throughput prompted Argus to integrate 81 ISE HDD arrays to support Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and a SQL Server database with 2 PB of storage.

Argus Information & Advisory Services was the first announced customer to buy the X-IO (then known as Xiotech) Integrated Storage Element storage arrays six years ago. The big data analytics firm started with a handful of systems, and that implementation has grown to 81 arrays that store petabytes of data.

With customers that include 120 of the world's largest credit card companies, Argus needs high-throughput storage in an always-on environment. After experiencing chronic bottlenecks with a traditional SAN, the New York-based company replaced it with Integrated Storage Element (ISE) hard disk drive arrays a few months after Xiotech launched the systems with technology acquired from Seagate.

Since making the switch in 2008, Argus has steadily added X-IO ISE units to scale storage to growing data needs. The company started with five blade systems for 85 TB of storage, expanding to nearly 81 ISE systems that provide approximately 2 PB of raw capacity. The devices can run either as direct-attached storage or plug into an 8 GB Fibre Channel switch.

"The ability to switch the X-IO storage through a SAN fabric and attach them to multiple servers allows us to have flexibility. It's pretty much a 'set it and forget it' environment. The only time we interface with the storage system is to add physical units or create more LUNs and allocate them to the servers," said Argus CIO Nick Daffan.

"The other unique thing is that the system uses no controllers," he added. "The LUNs are essentially pseudo-direct-attached to the servers. That's how we allocate the storage. We'll buy a chunk of ISE units, plug them in, carve up the LUNs and away we go."

Storage speed, efficiency needed to keep pace with business growth

Argus generates revenue by ingesting and processing anonymous transactional data into reports and business intelligence that retail banks use to analyze consumer buying patterns. Banks mine this information to identify trends and tailor their credit card services to customer preferences. They also can use it to benchmark their performance versus competitors.

Argus analyzes about 5 billion transactions per month on behalf of banks and averages monthly data growth of 3.2 TB.

"About 95% of our storage is primary storage. We have a tiered concept, but our tiering is related to stale data and backup," Daffan said.

Argus started searching for new storage before implementing the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise operating system and Microsoft SQL Server database for transaction processing, data warehousing and business intelligence. Controllers on an aging Hewlett-Packard SAN topped out at 200 megabits per second (Mbps), creating delays for end users. The SAN also did not easily scale to support the Microsoft computing environment.

Argus requires consistently reliable throughput to analytic database applications. New data gets loaded to storage in batch cycles round the clock, underscoring the need for predictable bandwidth.

"In our analytical environment, we tend to have fewer transactions, but they run longer and consume more data per transaction. We're less focused on IOPS than we are on megabits per second to the operating system and the database," Daffan said.

X-IO ISE blades pared management tasks, data center footprint

Daffan said he never heard of Xiotech before he began researching storage options six years ago, but the vendor won out over storage stalwarts EMC, Hitachi Data Systems and NetApp. Daffan said the ISE systems consume less data center real estate and enable Argus to process data four times faster than SAN technologies. Argus was also allowed to test the ISE arrays on-site, which is critical given the sensitive financial data Argus manages for banks.

"Other vendors were happy to test data for us, but we don't want that data leaving our environment. X-IO was the only vendor willing to bring its equipment to our environment, and help us configure and test it in great detail for a few weeks to get comfortable using it," Daffan said.

Argus' ISE arrays run at about 90% capacity without degrading performance, which Daffan said enables full use of the purchased capacity. Argus also uses data compression features in SQL Server to further reduce database storage. By running ISE units across multiple databases, Daffan said storage achieves close to 20,000 Mbps.

Argus takes full and incremental backups during the workweek and criss-crosses replication nightly between multiple datacenters for disaster recovery. It writes custom scripts for delta blocks between full backups.

Data retention is a priority as well. Although Argus has retention policies for aged data, the company customarily keeps data longer than specified to enable banks to analyze long-term historical consumer trends. More often than not, Daffan said Argus will err on the side of expanding storage.

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