Storage Saves the data

This marks the beginning of RIS News' regular monthly roundup on storage, a subject that is becoming increasingly strategic in the retail world. If you have questions about storage, send them to [email protected].

Nowhere is storage area networking done with as much gusto or as much solid management as it is at Office Depot. Unlike many other retail chains, Office Depot has learned the hard lessons of storage management, coming to see its high value to myriad retail functions. There was a time, for instance, when the company allowed data to be stored and managed in a variety of locations.

"We have learned that data needs to be managed centrally," says John Vaught, VP of shared services, the department that manages Office Depot's central storage facilities, among other things. "We cannot have separate DASD (direct access storage devices) for every platform. Bringing it all under one roof with a single architecture helps manage costs and expectations."

Payoff Checkoff

Storage at Office Depot has so many payoffs you can almost lose your place as they're checked off. First, there's the usual — keeping the data available all day every day. Then there's the uptime factor in an environment where five minutes of downtime is unacceptable. Finally, there are the customer relationships — for Office Depot, the imprimatur of any systems purchase request.

"The highest commitment of every channel at Office Depot is customer satisfaction," says Office Depot spokesperson, Lauren Garvey. "We believe in fanatical customer service, and we justify much of our technology spending on that."

Office Depot's channels include 1,000 owned and licensed brick-and-mortar stores, multiple Web sites and call-in catalog sales. The $11 billion (sales) company makes about one-third of its income from its Business Services Group, which relies heavily on the Web for MRO sales and other offerings.

"Our attitude toward storage is greatly influenced by these multiple channels," says Vaught. "We design services with a lot of redundancy. A customer must never see anything that looks like an outage."

Office Depot has a carefully crafted architecture that includes all servers, network routers, DASD, and more. relies heavily on that architecture which is set up so the Web site is always functional.

The Delray Beach, FL-based company relies on EMC's Data Manager (EDM) suite to run its banks of DASD. "We are backing up all sites every day, depending upon the application — which dictates the backup strategy," says Vaught. "We use redundant DASD to always present one image to the customer. Always."

With EDM, Office Depot can manage the big EMC Symmetrix storage boxes as well as any Unix or Windows devices on the network. The centralized backup and restore system keeps more than customer interfaces rolling.

EMC was one of the first companies to sell storage area networks as the data warehouse phenomenon grew in the mid-1990s. The growth of the Web and other phenomena made it more essential. And, following the Y2K blip, enterprisewide business recovery has taken a front seat in the development of the technology. Other companies that have jumped into the SAN marketplace include IBM and HP (and its new Compaq line of storage devices). Computer Associates' Bright Star SAN Manager emphasizes management of logical units across diverse networks. Veritas, which also sells a disaster recovery program, sells SAN management software that gets more utilization out of a variety of storage devices across the enterprise.

Storage area networks offer fast data access to terabyte-sized warehouses through a set of management techniques, fibre connections and clustered processors. Cambridge Computers, Adaptec, Concord, Cisco, Crossroads and Hitachi are among the companies that have solutions. Purchasers are generally companies that have a very good data architecture designed to preserve and share data across the entire enterprise.

Continuous Update

"We know how many orders we take every minute and every hour and how much money we take in," says Vaught, a veteran of over 30 years in the systems business. "We know what a five-minute outage costs. Beyond that, any Web site that is unreliable is the kiss of death. The ROI from storage area networking is great in credibility and consistency." This goes for internal as well as external business. Internally, for instance, Office Depot has been building a Teradata warehouse with Microstrategy analytics. The network and systems architecture developed by the retailer gives a foundation to the reliability, availability and scalability of the industry standard products they use.

At Office Depot, standards are the first line of defense of the system's reliability. Vaught says, "We have central facilities for managing just about every mission critical function." All of which is run by the storage management department that reports to him.

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