Flash Storage Eases Data Logjams, Speeds Workflow

Thriving businesses often experience growing pains, and that’s certainly true for their IT infrastructure. Storage systems designed to handle modest amounts of data and activity can’t keep up with the massive data and increased workflow that generally accompany success.

Home furnishings retailer Room & Board, which has 850 employees, 14 stores nationwide and expanding online sales, found that growth was placing a lot of stress on its IT systems. The spinning-disk storage system, in particular, had serious performance problems.

There were frequent slowdowns within critical SAP applications, and routine SAP queries dragged down performance companywide. Critical analytics reports could run only when IT systems had available capacity. Over time, the limitations became unsustainable.

Shawn O’Brien, director of infrastructure and architecture, got to experience that firsthand within days of joining Room & Board in July 2014. “In my first week, there were two or three significant slowdowns caused by disk bottlenecks,” he recalls. The disruption affected the 600 terminals connected through Citrix, delaying basic operations, such as email for users throughout the company.

O’Brien, who leads a team of six, realized that the current storage system couldn’t respond to all the requests. “The disk array wasn’t old,” he says. “It just couldn’t keep up with the data we pumped in and out.” Nor could a hybrid disk array that combined spinning disks and flash storage.

Evaluating All-Flash Storage Systems

The company explored all-flash storage options and narrowed the field to two. In September 2014, O’Brien arranged a head-to-head competition between them.

“We put the identical workload onto each and monitored them the whole time,” he says. “As we expected, both were able to handle massive I/O, so we decided to see what happened when we ran a few failure scenarios in the test environment—pulling disks out, cutting the power and removing one of the controller heads in a pair.”

The differences were striking. One contender, the Pure Storage FlashArray, experienced no drop in performance, though its competition “fell off the cliff,” taking an hour and a half to recover. “The Pure architecture was bulletproof,” O’Brien says. “It was one of the more impressive things I’ve seen.”

The Pure system also stood out for simplicity, he adds, with an instruction manual “about the size of a trifold business card that would fit in a wallet.”

Room & Board decided to move ahead with Pure Storage. By March 2015, the new system was fully operational. “Implementation was seamless,” O’Brien says. “As a virtualized environment, we were able to connect the new system using VMware and move data while we were running live. Users weren’t affected in any way.”

Speed and Productivity Soared

Results were immediate. “Most issues were gone the second we got off spinning disk and onto the new system, with consistent sub-millisecond latency,” he reports. The increases in speed had a profound effect on operations.

“Every night, we run a schedule of deliveries for the next day,” O’Brien says. “It’s a massive job, and it’s critical. We would kick it off at midnight, and sometimes it wasn’t ready by 6 a.m. When we moved to Pure, the first report took only 1 hour and 17 minutes.”

It was so surprising, he adds, that “we spent a good part of the morning checking that the data was complete and correct.” It was. The report continues to run every night in less than 2 hours.

Similarly, it used to take employees in the finance department about two hours to run monthly reports, so they couldn’t do so in the middle of the day. With the new system, it takes just 3 minutes.

While Room & Board’s initial plan for the Pure FlashArray was to support only its SAP workloads, the IT team decided to test it on other applications as well. “We were using only 15 percent of the system’s capacity, not the 50 percent we expected,” O’Brien says.

The team cautiously added Citrix XenApp, Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint and other systems. “We just kept throwing more at it, and it ingested it without a hiccup,” he says. So, before the year’s end, the company added Pure to its secondary data center.

Though the initial investment was steep, improved productivity justified the cost. Among other things, Citrix log-in times for hundreds of users were reduced from 38 seconds to 14 seconds. In addition, power consumption has dropped greatly, and no-forklift upgrades are covered by the Evergreen Storage program. “As long as we pay for maintenance, Pure will upgrade our controllers at no cost, so we are in a continuously upgraded environment,” O’Brien says.

Ease of administration is a major benefit. “I used to have one staffer who spent 60 or 70 percent of his time balancing loads,” he says. “Now we don’t need a storage admin, and his time is freed up to focus on things that really matter. That in itself is a huge ROI.”