News Analysis

Startup steals a win with thin provisioning

Jo Maitland, News Director

Allant Group, a privately owned telemarketing company based in Naperville, Ill., claims it is outstripping its competition by stepping up its IT efforts. In particular, the company has installed thin provisioning storage management software from 3Pardata Inc., saving it from over provisioning disk capacity.

In business for about 20 years, Allant performs credit card processing services as well as direct marketing, list management and campaign analysis for about 1,000 customers, including Time Inc., American Home Shield and FTD.com, a global online florist.

Bob Hroma, director of IT at Allant, said the firm's storage requirements became significantly more important to the company as it has grown. "When we were down for a couple of days last year, management became very sensitive to issues of reliability and redundancy," he said.

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Allant runs 100 million names and addresses through its database on average of 1,000 times a day, and the faster it can turn that data around the better it is able to compete. "It is taking our competitors Acxiom Corp. and Donnelley Marketing a day or two days to do what we're doing in a couple of hours," Hroma said.

To achieve this performance Allant gave up on its homemade SAN, which was failing regularly, and invited all the major storage vendors to pitch a solution. EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems and StorageTek Corp. took up the offer along with 3Pardata Inc., a startup based in Fremont, Calif.,.and known in the industry as 3Par.

"They all have different benchmarks and use different terminology, so it's hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison," Hroma said. After several months of testing, the decision came down to EMC and 3Par. "Price wise they were pretty even; EMC was a little bit cheaper." Hroma said he found 3Par's storage array the more advanced in terms of administration tools and provisioning functions.

The ability to provision storage capacity on the fly to new marketing campaigns that often need to be turned around fast was crucial for Allant. In addition, the company has a rich mix of servers it needs to support, including Solaris, NetWare, Windows, True64, Linux and AIX, which required simple, easy-to-use administration tools.

Thin is in

3Par offers a feature called thin provisioning, which allows users to create volumes of any size without actually purchasing or installing the entire amount of disk storage. It defeats the problem of over provisioning, according to Hroma. "It is a way of pretending we are giving our storage administrators more capacity than we actually giving them," he said.

A Dedicate-on-Write (DoW) feature allows users to allocate as much logical capacity as needed over an application's lifetime. Meanwhile, physical capacity is drawn from a common pool on an as-needed basis. That is, only when applications actually write data to the storage array is physical disk capacity drawn from the pool. To date, 3Par is the only disk vendor around offering this capability. It sells its thin provisioning software for $6,000 per written terabyte of data.

Hroma weighed the pros and cons of relying on a startup, versus an established vendor, and decided to take the risk. "3Par made some concessions in the contract for us around ensuring that parts would always be available even if the company wasn't … We took a leap of faith, but EMC could always discontinue a product line, too, so you're never really safe with any company," Hroma noted.

There were other factors that turned Hroma off EMC, too. "I didn't like their tactics," he said. When EMC lost the bid, their sales people called five or six officers at Allant and started bad-mouthing Allant's IT staff, according to Hroma. "They told our senior executives that the IT department didn't know what they were doing." This happened around November 2003 and reinforced Allant's decision not to use EMC.

As far as setting up the 3Par system goes, Allant had no trouble connecting it to most of its servers. "We've been struggling with IBM Corp.'s AIX attached to 3Par; we're not getting the throughput there," noted Hroma. He said this is because 3Par's system is not on IBM's certified device list. "AIX considers it a default SCSI device and so it can't take advantage of all 3Par's features," he said. 3Par is a rival, which is more than likely why IBM is dragging its heels on certifying this system.

Price was partly a factor in Allant's decision but wasn't nearly as important as performance or reliability, Hroma said. 3Par's thin provisioning feature and six to seven months of rigorous testing without a failure won the day here. "When you're spending $300,000 to $400,000, $10,000 either side isn't that much. The company bought 17 TB of raw capacity and 1 TB of thin provisioning.

In a perfect world, Hroma said he would have liked a larger installed base of 3Par customers to talk with, but that aside, he's happy with the product and is considering a second array for a disaster recovery site.


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