When a business depends on its ability to manage inventory, being limited by I/O is a bad place to be. So about a year ago, online bookseller Alibris set out to replace its storage infrastructure with one that could meet the high performance needs of the business while providing scalability and ease of management.
Today, the worldwide online exchange for sellers of more than 60 million used, new and out-of-print book, music and movie titles keeps business humming with 3PAR's InServ S800 Storage Server.
"We now have what we need to run our business," said Michael Schaffer, CTO of Emeryville, Calif.-based Alibris. "We have the ability to upgrade and we don't spend nearly as much time as we used to contemplating storage management."
3PAR's virtualized storage platform supports Alibris' inventory management system, retail Web site, search engine and e-commerce order processing system, all of which are based on multiple clustered Microsoft SQL Server databases.
Hitting a Storage Dead End
Founded in 1998, Alibris, with 65 employees, is a B2B and B2C company. On the business side, the company partners with thousands of independent sellers from 45 countries. Alibris partners include popular book sellers such as Barnes & Nobles, Borders and Amazon.com, to name a few. Consumers can also shop on Alibris.com Web sites.
The company's business model enables its business partners to re-price, add, remove and update inventory records around the clock. The timely updates keep automated partners at a competitive advantage. "At the time we sent out an RFP for a new storage system, 1 to 2 million changes were being made daily to our inventory system," said Schaffer.
Because the inventory system replicated to a half dozen database servers, the massive number of daily changes was bogging down system performance. "We were I/O bound on most of our major applications," Schaffer said.
The in-house designed SAN the company had in place at the time wasn't able to meet Alibris' capacity or performance requirements.
"About four years ago, we had the idea to build our own mini-SAN," said Schaffer. "However, the controllers didn't have the power to handle multiple hosts," largely in part because of the demands placed on the system. So in essence, what the company created was a direct-attached storage (DAS) architecture that created islands of lost storage and performance.
"Our storage environment behaved like one controller to one server, each with about 1 to 2 terabytes of storage. It was a dead-end situation," said Schaffer.
What the company needed to support current usage and future growth was a storage system with high performance, high availability, ease of management and strong support.
The Search Is On
About a year ago, Alibris sent out an RFP looking for a vendor solution that would meet its criteria and received responses from EMC, Network Appliance, IBM and 3PAR.
Company decision makers talked with all four vendors and saw demos from EMC, NetApp and 3PAR. "IBM was late to the game and was very similar to EMC," said Schaffer. However, only one vendor, 3PAR, allowed the prospective customer to mess with their storage, as Schaffer puts it.
"3PAR let us pull out cables, pull on the power supply, etc., because that's real world," he said.
The Alibris tech team liked what it saw and took the next step to have the storage solution installed in its environment for further testing. "We wanted to run tests to see if the numbers that 3PAR gave us held up," said Schaffer.
IT ran stress tests using its SQL databases, and while the system was hot, pulled out shelves of disks and nodes. "We discovered that 3PAR's claims about its product were true," he said.
There were several key features of the 3PAR InServ Storage Server product that Schaffer and his IT staff were particular impressed with: automated provisioning, management and load balancing of data center resources. "When my staff understood that we buy storage but they don't choose physical disks, they were definitely interested. All the management work that they were used to doing just went away."
At the end of the day, vendor selection came down to 3PAR and EMC, according to Schaffer. But while EMC had the performance, it didn't provide the ease of management that the 3PAR product offered.
Just in Time
Last July, Alibris signed the purchase order and wrote out the check to 3PAR. With August, the company's busy back-to-school month, just around the corner, the InServ S800 Storage Server was rushed into production. A 3PAR channel partner helped Alibris with the storage server installation. It took less than a day.
The company purchased the InServ S800 Storage Server, two controller nodes and 5 terabytes of disk, most of which was Fibre Channel.
Today, all of company's applications, except financials, have been migrated to the 3PAR storage. "We have plans to upgrade our general ledger, and when we do that we'll do the migration at the same time," said Schaffer.
Earlier this year, the company purchased an additional two nodes and 50 terabytes of raw storage and more near-line storage, giving it the ability to do tiered storage. The InServ S800 can handle up to eight nodes and up to 2,560 disk drives, according to the vendor.
Today, Alibris not only has the storage architecture that meets its business needs, but one that is easy on its IT staff of four. "Prior to getting the 3PAR solution, storage management could eat up as much as 75 percent of someone's time for a few weeks at a time. Now, only 15 percent of our system administrator's time is spent managing storage," said Schaffer.
The company also reports that it's seen more than a 300 percent increase in I/O workload and continues to meet service level requirements, even though the updates that Alibris business partners make to the inventory system on a daily basis have grown to 5 million changes per day.