Mo Asgari, vice president of technology at Photochannel Networks Inc., Vancouver, B.C., has learned the value of writing a business plan with a pencil. During the past four years, the firm took an eraser to its business model three times, each one requiring a dramatic change in its data storage architecture.
Fortunately, Asgari has been able to maintain much of the company's investments. "With today's business climate being so volatile, a firm has to make sure its storage products comply with accepted standards so components can be swapped out when changes occur, rather than require complete new purchases," he said.
That lesson has come from experience. Since 1995, Photochannel has focused on delivering high-end online imaging services to clients. A change in the type of customers it targets has lead to dramatic alterations in its storage requirements.
The corporation started out delivering services -- such as online markups -- to organizations like marketing firms that work a lot with images. Initially, Photochannel relied on three IBM 5500 PC servers running Windows NT to support its applications.
When the dot-com boom was mushrooming, the imaging firm decided to expand its business and offer consumers the ability to tinker with photos online. However, the firm's existing data storage architecture -- basically direct-attached storage to a series of servers -- wasn't flexible enough to support the new requirements.
Initially, Photochannel planned to move all of its storage online. That way, customers could perform sophisticated dark room functions such as changing color shades or altering image sizes. But, that option would have been too difficult to implement and too expensive for the firm.
Instead, Photochannel decided to install a hierarchical storage management (HSM) solution with approximately 1 terabyte of storage capacity. Customers could work with excerpts of their photos initially and then downloaded photos from a tape system when they wanted to edit or print them.
As part of the move to this model, the company revamped its data center. Rather than tax its current infrastructure, Photochannel opted to open a backup data center in Stamford, Conn. The company migrated its database management system, Oracle Corp's (Redwood Shores, Calif.) Oracle from IBM hardware to a Sun Microsystems Inc., Santa Clara, Calif. Sparcserver 450R. The number of servers increased from three to seven, largely through the introduction of dedicated imaging servers.
The imaging firm was using Hitachi Data Systems' 7700E systems for storage, but had trouble connecting the Sun server to the storage system. "A SAN [storage area network] means a company will be working in a heterogeneous environment and sometimes the user can have trouble connecting all of the devices," said Anthony Brown, a principal at Seven Group Ltd., a Burnaby, B.C., systems integrator.
The consulting firm found that Photochannel's adapter card was the troublespot and replaced it with the 1063N from JNI Corp. "It was amazing that a $1,000 card was knocking a $3 million data center offline," said Seven Group's Brown.
In early 2002, Photochannel began operating the new data center, but then again revamped its business model. Like many companies, the firm discovered that the Internet's introduction did not result in a deluge of new online consumers. Rather than rely solely on technologically savvy consumers, the imaging company decided to market its services to retailers. Today, the firm offers back-end imaging services to corporations such as Black Photo Corp.
This decision resulted in another restructuring of the firm's data storage systems. Rather than maintain two data centers, Photochannel decided to hand the back up chores to a Managed Service Provider, Telus, based in Vancouver.
With Photochannel's back-office business growing, the company needed to double its storage capacity. Rather than stick with the Hitachi system, the imaging supplier decided to purchase the 9176 from Storagetek, Louisville Colo. The Storagetek product cost less and offered higher throughput than another Hitachi 7700.
With the architecture decisions made, the imaging company had to outline a plan to move its data storage network from Stamford to Vancouver (a distance of more than 3,000 miles) without interrupting its services. "The actual changes took us only a few weeks to implement, but the process for putting them all in place required a couple of months," said Photochannel's Asgari. "Storage systems are complex, so any change in one component affects others. As a result, we had to make that there were no repercussions from any of the changes."
The project should be completed in the early spring. "We think the architecture we have in place in will remain the same for a few years, but if it doesn't, we feel confident that we can make the necessary changes with minimal disruption," concluded Asgari.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass. and specializes in high technology issues. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
For more information on Photochannel take a look at its Website.
Additional information on JNI can be found here.
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This was first published in March 2003