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Improving data, storage and backup management

Improving data, storage and backup management
Harte-Hanks' new RAID storage system

To keep up with the needs of its customers, Harte-Hanks required a storage system that could process information quickly but also cost-effectively.

By Rick Cook

Harte-Hanks, Inc.'s business is other people's customers. The Austin, Texas-based company specializes in customer relationship management (CRM), from outsourcing call centers to providing tools for analyzing customer data.

It's a billion-dollar-a-year business for Harte-Hanks, according to Scott Hopkins, vice president of IT systems and operations, and storage is a major part of it. "Storage is a critical component of our solution set," Hopkins says. "The name of the game is data, and it's the prudent management of that data, storage and backup that is critical to our business."

This is especially true at the company's Billerica, Mass.-based unit that specializes in running data marts of CRM data for Fortune 1000 companies. "We provide a suite of software services and intellectual property on how best to do marketing activities," explains Hopkins. To speed up access to that data, Harte-Hanks installed high performance RAID storage, FlashDisk OpenRAID disk array, from Winchester Systems, Inc., a Burlington, Mass. maker of storage devices. The result, Hopkins says, is fast, cost-effective data access for Harte-Hanks and its customers.

Harte-Hanks ran squarely into one of the problems of modern database processing: how to make relatively slow storage keep up with the ever-increasing processor speed without dropping a bundle. On modern database systems, the ability to access information quickly is usually more of a bottleneck than the ability to process it quickly. While storage has made tremendous advances in speed, processor power has leapt ahead even faster. Winchester Systems says that processor power has increased perhaps 100-fold in the last six or seven years, while the mechanical speed of disk drives has only tripled.

Although mechanical performance of disk drives hasn't increased much, vendors like Winchester Systems can get around the problem by a combination of clever design and making maximum use of new technologies to speed throughput. In turn, that implies that in a data-intensive operation such as data warehousing, increasing the performance of the storage system is likely to give a much bigger overall performance increase at a lower cost than throwing more powerful processors at the same system. This is especially important because service businesses, like Harte-Hanks make money by providing services cost-effectively.

Hopkins says the specific problem was to find disk storage systems that were affordable as well as fast. "Disk can be expensive and we were looking at utilizing our financial resources effectively. We looked for a company that could provide high performance and low cost. Through our testing and continued use we found Winchester Systems has a quality product that performs well and cost-effectively. We needed that cost-effectiveness."

Expandability was another important factor in the decision. "Typically we work with the customer on how big the database is going to grow. If it's a significant change in database volume we work with Winchester Systems to preconfigure the environment, get approval to buy it and get it here typically within four days," says Hopkins.

Data marts are specialized databases that try to bring together all the information in a company in a specific area. In the case of Harte-Hanks' clients that area is customer data. By consolidating customer data, analyzing it and running various models against it, companies can gain a much better understanding of what works and what doesn't. "What our customers are trying to do as they analyze their data is to look for trends," Hopkins says. "Based on those trends they will generate a campaign. That can be direct mail, e-mail or other things. The campaign is then analyzed in terms of return on investment as to whether the model and the trends they identified were effective."

"They also look at things like customer retention and how they can provide additional services and products for their existing customer base," Hopkins says. "Depending on what market you're in, the data marts are all tweaked differently in what you look at."

Data marts are separate from the production databases that run the customers' day-to-day operations. Unlike the production databases they are specially tuned for analysis -- which usually means running fairly complex and usually ad hoc queries against them rather than supporting transactions. In the case of the Harte- Hanks CRM data marts, the databases are rebuilt as often as every couple of weeks with updated data. Rebuilds are very I/O intensive, Hopkins says, and involve a lot of sorts and matching. "It requires a high performance disk subsystem and for the price Winchester Systems beats everyone else," Hopkins says.

"Locally the company has in excess of 135 servers with over 30 terabytes of storage," Hopkins says. Because of security concerns many customers have their own servers and storage. Typically Harte-Hanks uses Sun enterprise servers from the 4500 to 6500 model range.

Hopkins says Harte-Hanks settled on the Winchester Systems' products after extensive testing over a period of about 24 months. "We ran through a series of benchmarks, looked at such things as reliable performance, ease of scalability, ease of management, and the overall reliability of the architecture and technology. We found Winchester Systems to be one of the premier cost-effective solutions for us in our data storage areas," Hopkins says.

For additional information about Harte-Hanks, visit their Web site.

For additional information on Winchester Systems, visit their Web site.

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