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In web-based retailing, these networked storage systems can be used to update pricing and promotions based on changing customer behavior data. The TimeFinder storage management system from EMC, for instance, enables a retail manager to leverage data-mining analytics based on customer shopping behavior records to make pricing and promotional changes on a copy of a consumer web site. Once the changes are made, they’re instantly synchronized on the actual transactional page. “The consumer doesn’t have to hit a refresh button,” says Thibeault.
At the Bombay Co. Inc., which designs and markets home furnishings on the web and in 422 stores in the U.S. and foreign markets, a new centralized data management strategy that integrates a network-attached storage server into a SAN provides for a central data repository that will scale up to greater storage capacity as Bombay increases business in all of its channels, says Chris Carroll, director of infrastructure. Bombay, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is integrating a network-attached storage server from Dell with a Dell EMC SAN.
Bombay, which installed its storage management system out of a necessity to consolidate its growing amount of data, expects it to provide opportunities to learn how to better use data for tracking trends and customer shopping behavior, Carroll says. “The more history we collect, the more we’ll learn how to use our storage technology to better use the data,” he says.
One of the additional ways Carroll expects to leverage the new system is to create a product image library, so that Bombay can better manage the images and make sure it’s presenting a consistent view of products across multiple media, including web, print ads and in-store signage. Without that library, he says, Bombay must take a more laborious route of checking how images appear in each medium to assure their consistency.
Expected increases in multi-channel activity will only add to Bombay ‘s reliance on management of back-end storage. “We see a lot of opportunity there to give people faster and better access to information,” Carroll says, adding that Bombay’s storage system will become more important as the company expands both its web and store operations.
Bombay works with several data respositories, but by consolidating the data onto one back-end storage system, it will make it easier for managers to access the particular data they need. “So they can make decisions in a faster pace,” Carroll says.
New era of integration
In a study of enterprise storage systems conducted earlier this year, Meta Group Inc. found that many companies appear to be similar to Bombay in that they need to learn how to best leverage storage technology. Among the study’s findings are that most business organizations do not have enforced storage policies or central storage administration.
“There is a relatively weak understanding of how much storage is being managed, little confidence in current backup/recovery practices, and a general lack of knowledge about emerging storage technologies,” the study says. In the meantime, however, storage technology is evolving to make it more usable.
Storage technology and the product strategies of data storage vendors have been evolving to make storage systems more interoperable among different brands and, at least theoretically, more effective at helping merchants manage data across multiple channels and data points.
Before the surge in online retailing in recent years, and the subsequent rise in multi-channel retailing, there was little if any concern about making storage servers interoperable. For one thing, data storage was cheap, so it usually was not considered a financial burden to simply increase storage where it was needed. And without a need to integrate data among different channels, retailers could just build up their storage capacity in silos to support individual applications.
But while retail strategies and the demand they make on storage have changed, many retailers’ storage systems have not. Many existing retail industry storage systems were installed as long as 10 years ago, when storage servers were not designed for interoperability. “Open standards are definitely ringing a bell for people who have felt trapped for a long time,” says Slaughter of Dell.
The practical result of having a network of storage servers that interoperate, he and others say, is that retailers can mine and analyze data from multiple channels as well as from multiple applications, including customer relationship management and supply chain management systems, to plan promotions and inventory levels to support multiple channels, both separately and as an interrelated group.
Long way to go
“The retail business is tougher than ever, with aggressive competition in both price and assortment. Our challenge is to ensure that customers find the merchandise and service they want in our stores, while eliminating what they don’t want,” says Rand of Sears. He adds that he needs the right data storage system to enable Sears to access and manipulate data in a way that supports its merchandising efforts faster than the competition.
Still, some analysts say the move toward interoperability among different brands of storage servers has a way to go in terms of universal reliability. “No one today really supplies heterogeneous storage management tools,” says Meta Group’s Goodwin. “We’re at a point where storage management is really in its early stages, about the 3rd inning of a 9-inning game.”
Much of the data storage market is the turf of leading vendors Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., EMC Corp. and Veritas Software Corp. But there are also 100 or more storage technology companies that have cropped up in recent years, though many are expected to disappear in a market shakeup and consolidation, says Elliott of Hurwitz Group.
Storage management systems are usually customized for each user, so prices vary widely. For an example of entry-level prices, however, EMC’s Clariion CX400 networked storage system starts at $62,000. The 2-gigabyte system can handle cached data at 680 megabytes per second.
A few start-ups, meanwhile, are attracting the attention of analysts for what appear to be innovative attempts to improve storage management. Two examples, says Elliott, are Campbell, Calif.-based OuterBay Technologies and New York-based NewView Technologies Inc. While OuterBay has a patent pending on improving storage integration with PeopleSoft and Oracle databases, NewView is working on improved integration in Windows-based file management systems.