Outside of See’s Candies, FTD and Victoria ‘s Secret, perhaps no other company is more affiliated with Valentine’s Day than 1-800-FLOWERS, whose telephone-order service was founded way back in 1976.
The Long Island-based company’s Web site, 1-800-FLOWERS.com, was one of the true pioneers of the Internet, going online in 1992-before Mosaic/Netscape’s graphical browsers were available-and starting business in 1994. It took a while for the online business to grow, just as the entire Internet developed through the ’90s.
Besides its Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day staple of offering delivery of fresh flowers, 1-800-FLOWERS.com also provides plants, gift baskets, gourmet foods, confections and plush stuffed animals. So the company has a complicated job to do.
In the last seven or eight years, business at the publicly-held company has gone gangbusters, leading to some serious challenges for its IT department. The main internal question: How do we keep up with continued skyrocketing demand?
“During our peak periods, our IT transaction level can go as high as 2,400 actions per second,” Vivek Subramanian, director of distributed systems for 1-800-FLOWERS.com, told eWEEK.
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That, of course, is not the number of business transactions the company does per second, but the number of calculations and queries the company’s three huge data centers have to handle during peak periods-such as the four days before Valentine’s Day and the two weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. The system can handle hundreds of business transactions per second with little or no latency.
“Our whole system is designed to handle peak periods,” CIO Steve Bozzo told eWEEK. “That was the main criteria for us in setting up our system, because our business is built on handling high peaks.
“Let’s face it: We’re men. We don’t think about getting gifts for our women until the last minute. That’s the way we’re made,” Bozzo said.
With a complex IT environment supporting a number of brands and types of data, and the company growing rapidly through acquisition, 1-800-FLOWERS.com needed to improve data access and availability for its mission-critical customer-facing, Web, financial, inventory, fulfillment and analytical applications. To accomplish this, in 2006 the company consolidated its IT footprint and implemented new data storage technologies, creating a reliable 70-terabyte infrastructure that speeds and streamlines business operations.
All the storage is EMC-based, Subramanian said. It is comprised of high-end Symmetrix DMX and Clariion hardware and EMC ‘s ControlCenter SRM (storage resource management) software.
“We use IBM WebSphere for our application software, running on Hewlett-Packard servers,” Subramanian said, “to go with the EMC storage. We’re very much a loyal vendor shop when it comes to our data centers. We have our few favorite vendors and we don’t mix it up too much. It can get too complicated if we do.”
This infrastructure supports the company’s process for handling seasonal peaks in customer orders, which can multiply online traffic 10 to 12 times. Rather than investing in extensive vertical scaling capabilities to accommodate peak loads on a single Web site, 1-800-FLOWERS.com utilizes three regional data centers, each supporting two Web sites-one primary and one backup-all seamlessly connected to the company’s main URL.
Balancing the online load
It is a patented, first-of-a-kind, horizontal-scaling solution for the problem of commercial Web sites that slow down or crash due to peak loads, Bozzo said.
The company has achieved its far-reaching success through a program of rapid growth and the acquisition of new brands, Bozzo said.
Today, regardless of any increase in order volume, the online load (which represents three-quarters of the company’s sales) is balanced, as each customer is automatically routed to a Web site that can provide a quick online experience. The customer is served product and account information as needed, and order information is linked to 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s back-end order processing and fulfillment systems.
Four years ago, 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s IT infrastructure utilized 100 percent direct-attached storage, Bozzo said.
“These arrays were difficult to monitor or repair, or to expand at a fast enough pace to keep up with the rapid increase in both data and the number of new companies we were acquiring to grow the business,” Bozzo said.
“Adding more storage in the old environment meant significant down time, was very costly, and slowed processing as production CPU cycles were used to perform tasks such as striping and data mirroring. Storage utilization on the direct-attached arrays was only 50 percent, making it necessary to add new storage more frequently.”
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In addition, there was no effective data classification strategy-old data was archived in the same place as current production data, slowing data access and availability. As a result of all these factors, the IT department struggled to provide services demanded by the business, Bozzo said.
When 1-800-FLOWERS.com decided to go with EMC as its storage supplier, the system capacity was expanded from 40 terabytes to 70. The company now maintains three production SANs in the United States , including five EMC Symmetrix and 15 EMC Clariion networked storage systems, which are optimized using EMC ControlCenter storage resource management (SRM) software.
1-800-FLOWERS.com also uses EMC ‘s TimeFinder software to locally replicate information to support its business continuity strategy, increase application availability and reduce scheduled downtime.
Overall, the new storage systems improve performance, reliability and manageability, Subramanian said.
Backup windows also have been significantly reduced, he added.
“For example, one 700GB database used to take 12 to14 hours to backup to tape libraries over a weekend, with the database down the entire time,” Subramanian said. “Today, backing up that database to disk takes only 30 minutes, a 96 percent reduction in backup time. In fact, we would need three more IT staff people to manage their environment if running on direct-attached arrays.”