Petcos New Storage Gear Is the Cats Meow

Case Study: Popular pet supply retailer Petco turns to NetApp to give its warehouses a more reliable and efficient storage system.

Whether the objects of their affection are cats or dogs, fish or ferrets, all sorts of pet lovers go to Petco Animal Supplies to keep their animals well-fed, groomed and happy.

The San Diego retailer operates an online store and more than 750 brick-and-mortar stores across the United States. In addition to selling pets, the stores offer every pet accessory imaginable, from cat collars to ferret ear cleaners, aquarium décor and carpet odor eliminators.

Petco is a massive retail chain that strives for a community-friendly image. Often located near residential neighborhoods, its stores are places where pet owners regularly go for staples such as dog food and may drop in on a whim to buy a toy. One way the company encourages customer loyalty is by welcoming pets into its stores.

Behind this friendly and relaxed atmosphere, however, is a virtual retail empire that relies heavily on technology to ensure its stores are always stocked with the broad assortment of products its shoppers have come to expect, said Andrew Ross, Petcos IS product manager.

"We keep thousands of products stored in our warehouses, and we need to keep track of where everything is located, in real time," said Ross. "It all changes minute to minute."

This inventory-tracking process begins with handheld RFID (radio-frequency identification) devices, which workers in Petcos three main warehouses use to receive shipping instructions, scan product bar codes and record inventory movements. Because of the volumes of merchandise being handled, it is a system that is highly sensitive to any disruptions or downtime, said Ross.

Over the years, Petco has used different storage solutions, including basic tape storage, which replicated data in a window of less than 24 hours. It also experimented with a data mirroring technology that repeatedly took snapshots of the database—effectively mirroring all activity in real time, so that everything that happened in the warehouse was captured on the backup storage.

However, as the companys retail network expanded, Petco started to see problems with both systems. Tape storage is reliable but not up-to-the-minute, meaning that in the event of an unexpected outage, several hours of data might be lost, Ross said. Even if the data was not lost, rewinding spools of tape to retrieve data can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about backing up and recovering your data.

Mirroring solutions, on the other hand, presented a different complication. Since a mirroring system of data storage works by tracking all database activity, it captures the downtime along with the uptime.

"If something happens to the primary storage, the secondary storage is probably corrupted as well," said Ross. In such a scenario, the data would be lost for good.

By 2005, Petco started having additional concerns with its storage system. The company had always used DAS (direct-attached storage), a common system that incorporates a small amount of storage into many different company servers. The challenge with this kind of system is that it does not allow storage to be shared among servers, said Ross.

One server storing data for an especially popular category of merchandise might be filled to capacity, yet it is unable to borrow from another one that is operating at less than 50 percent. This typically means that companies must retain a lot more total storage than they actually need. The bigger the company, the bigger this problem becomes.

Last year, Petco, with the help of its long-standing systems integrator, Trace 3, adopted a new storage system made by Network Appliance. The solution records all orders from stores and all shipments out of the warehouse and stores the data on disks, on separate servers, where it can easily be retrieved from multiple locations. In addition, because the NetApp solution is network-based, rather than direct-attached, it reduces the companys total storage needs.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read an interview with NetApps CEO as he discusses virtualization and encryption.

Hanuman Yalamanchi, Petcos database administrator, said the company settled on the NetApp technology after first narrowing down the type of storage system that would be most appropriate for its business. He said the company considered a number of traditional SAN (storage area network) and NAS (network-attached storage) solutions. It found that SAN storage was hard to deploy because it was heavy on maintenance. NAS, on the other hand, tended to be heavy on equipment. The third option, an iSCSI storage system, is essentially a hybrid of SAN and NAS that links data storage devices over a network and transfers data over IP networks.

"We looked at that and decided it would work very well in our distribution center," said Yalamanchi.

NetApps FAS3000 systems have replaced the DAS structure in two of Petcos three main warehouses and are in the process of being installed in the third. The NetApp technology, which is supported by the companys OnTap 7G software, helps Petco improve overall disk utilization by adding storage when and where it is needed, without disruption. This offers the flexibility to adapt quickly and easily to management needs, said Ross.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead a review of OnTap 7G.

"Weve basically developed software that allows us to simplify managing the data that is stored," said Rod Matthews, senior director of strategic marketing at NetApp, of Sunnyvale, Calif. "Its easier to deploy and easier to scale. Petco was looking for the ability to recover stored data in the event of a disaster, but its direct-attached storage could get pretty cumbersome. It forces you to guess what utilization will be; otherwise, you end up with a lot of excess storage."

Ross said that, after Petco settled on the NetApp solution, installation was a breeze. The company started deploying the solution at its first warehouse in August 2005 and was able to complete the installation in less than a day.

"It was almost seamless," said Ross, who said he had believed it was critical for any new storage adopted to be installed with little or no disruption on the warehouse floor.

"That was part of our true measure of success," Ross said. "Warehouse workers didnt notice a thing. They left on Friday and came back on Monday, and everything was the same."

Andrea Pettis is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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