StoneAge.com Inc. of Troy, Mich., is an online enterprise that has been doing more than surviving recently: it has been thriving. The car reseller company services 2 million consumers and 1,500 automobile dealers each month. Since its formation in 1996, its revenue has increased by 2,667 percent.
Along with the success have come new challenges for the site, which provides automotive information to consumers and dealers. "We've had a number of IT projects that we wanted to complete to better support the business, but there just hasn't been enough time to finish them," said Matt McDonald, chief Internet officer for StoneAge.com.
One reason for the delay was that the IT staff was spending a lot of time trying to keep pace with seemingly never-ending, rapidly expanding data requirements: the firm's database management system was doubling in capacity every 12 months.
The company's reliance on images was driving the storage expansion. Since their principal service is to connect potential car buyers with dealers, the site features pictures as well as written descriptions of available inventory: usually about 100,000 automobiles are available for viewing at any given time. Since cars move quickly, there's a high turnover rate -- 20 percent to 30 percent per month. But the old photos do not disappear. StoneAge.com has to keep them on file for its dealers' records.
In addition, the Web site provides automotive financing services. This business also generates a large volume of information that has to be kept on file for many months.
Adding more storage was time-consuming because the company relied on server-attached storage systems -- mainly internal storage with a few SCSI drive arrays.
"Whenever we needed to add more storage, we had to rebuild each server from the ground up," McDonald said. The data center has about 30 Dell servers running Windows 2000.
StoneAge.com wanted to move from reactive to proactive mode, and that meant creating consistency among its mishmash of storage systems. So in the summer of 2001, the company looked at upgrading to either a storage area network (SAN) or a network-attached storage (NAS) system.
The former seemed more secure than the latter.
"There aren't any security buffers with a NAS, so securing the system would require installing a VPN or putting the device behind a firewall," McDonald said. The SAN also appeared to offer faster throughput.
The company examined SAN solutions from Compaq, EMC Corp., IBM Corp. and XIOTech Corp. The evaluation turned out to be a learning experience.
"When looking at a new storage system, a buyer has to make sure there are no hidden costs," McDonald said. "A couple of products had low purchase prices, but then we would have to pay through the nose in year two, three and four for items like software upgrades."
XIOtech's products were deemed cost-efficient and easy to use. "At the beginning of the product demonstration, the company's salespersons handed the device to us and told us to configure it," McDonald said. "We had it working in minutes. The system has an intuitive interface so one does not need a Ph.D. to set it up."
StoneAge.com finished its evaluation in April and installed XIOtech's Magnitude SAN in July. The first server migrated to the new infrastructure runs Microsoft's SQL 2000.
The change resulted in a significant performance increase. Previously, StoneAge.com ran the DBMS in one file group. Breaking it up into five file groups -- a task that would have required too much manual intervention with the server-attached storage configuration -- resulted in a performance boost of 20 percent or more for its applications.
The company identified 12 servers supporting tasks like file and print services, the company's phone system and financial applications that it plans to migrate to the new storage system. Five of the servers have been moved and the rest are expected to come online by the end of the year.
"When we finish, we may end up with about 20 servers using the new storage system," McDonald said. "In a few cases, it is clear that the servers would not benefit from the change. In some others, we are still weighing the pros and cons."
The company expects the new storage setup will help alleviate the IT backlog.
"We have a small support staff, only two persons, and they are responsible for activities such as help desk, networking tasks, building machines and upgrading software," McDonald said. "So we have plenty of other projects to keep them busy now that they will be spending less time expanding our storage systems."
About the author: Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in networking issues. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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