February 14, 2013, 11:48 AM

An online seller with lots of data finds one storage unit beats many

AutomationDirect.com stores terabytes of data on an EMC box.

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Most online retailers measure their data storage requirements in gigabytes. But AutomationDirect.com measures its needs in terabytes—thousands of gigabytes—and its investment in a powerful storage system is paying benefits, says Doug Lincoln, captain of the technology team, or what other companies might call the chief information officer. And he hopes it will pay additional benefits once his team can put all of its product into a single data warehouse and use it to more effectively promote products online.

AutomationDirect.com distributes factory automation equipment and stores lots of documentation, gigabytes worth for a single product in many cases. That includes computerized blueprints, known as CAD (for computer-aided design) files, training videos and other documents and images.

“We also keep those documents for every version of every product,” Lincoln says. If a customer has a problem with a component 10 years from now, even after the manufacturer has discontinued production, AutomationDirect.com will be able to provide the needed information to repair it, Lincoln says.

In all, the distributor, which closes more than half of its sales online, holds nearly 100 terabytes of data. It used to store that data in some 50 storage devices of varying makes and models, each monitored in its own way and with its own maintenance contract. “It wasn’t a homogeneous environment,” Lincoln says. “We thought there could be a lot of resources recovered by moving to a single enterprise storage system.”

With that in mind, the company in early 2012 purchased and deployed in its data center a VMAX 10K storage device from EMC, a maker of large data storage devices. It wasn’t cheap—Lincoln said it cost well over $1 million with the added capacity to store 100 terabytes of data—but he says it’s worth it. (EMC says the base price of the unit is between $50,000 and $100,000.)

The biggest benefit is that his systems administrator, Trace Nabors, no longer spends his time troubleshooting the hodgepodge of storage devices the company previously operated, freeing him up for other tasks. What’s more, the company no longer has to buy more storage capacity than it needs in order to be able to retrieve data fast—utilization of disc storage space is at least double what it was, Lincoln says. Plus, visitors to AutomationDirect.com and the company’s call center agents can get product data more quickly, he says.

More gains will come, he says, when the company finishes a master data management system that will provide a single window into all the terabytes of product data the company stores. That will enable the web site to tell a visitor buying a programmable logic controller, AutomationDirect.com’s core product line, that other buyers of that product also bought these five related items. The company can do that now, but it requires product managers to manually produce those recommendations. Once the new data warehouse is complete, probably early in 2014, that process will be automated and the web site will produce accurate recommendations instantly based on  sales data.

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