Magazine Article | September 1, 2002

Seize The Data

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

$3.5 billion Michaels Stores, Inc. shares 40 terabytes of data across more than 700 stores, even though it runs disparate IBM host systems.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, September 2002

It's safe to say Michaels Stores, Inc. (Irving, TX), the world's largest provider of arts and crafts supplies, is one retail chain that's not succumbing to the gloomy economic trends of the day. In fact, the company is thriving in every sense of the word. Its sales are more than double that of its closest competitor ... and it actually makes a profit. In 2001, the chain opened 75 new stores while shutting down only 8. But all this operational success doesn't come without challenges. As of July 31, 2002, its 726 stores averaged 40,000 SKUs (stock keeping units) each, and the company did more than $3.5 billion in sales. This product and sales volume produces a mountain of data. To keep its data management activities from getting out of control, Michaels makes storage a top priority. Unfortunately, not all retailers think the way Michaels does. Many think storage is just about backup and recovery. These retailers are missing an opportunity to positively impact their bottom lines.

"From a merchandising standpoint, the ability to store and share our sales and inventory information is very important," explains Kevin Nehring, director of technical services at Michaels. "An accessible storage environment gives us the ability to keep track of our merchandise as it moves from our vendors to our stores in a 'data warehouse,'" he says. Michaels uses the merchandising and inventory data it stores to create sales reports, get real-time views of its warehouse, and mine data to help identify sales trends. "We can look at the performance of different combinations of SKUs and provide this information to our merchants and executives so they can make timely decisions," he says.

Storage Causing Headaches? You're Not Alone.
Although the particulars of storage problems will vary from business to business, the underlying issues that cause storage headaches are common. One issue many businesses face is heterogeneous platforms that don't easily communicate with each other. In Michaels' case, the company was running both AS/400 ISeries and RS/6000 PSeries host servers.

Another challenge retailers face is executing daily updates to data warehouses. "We're sharing a lot of data between our data warehouse and the new merchandising system that we're putting in. The movement of data between our stores and our DCs has to be replicated to our data warehouse on a nightly interval," says Nehring. Previously, the company handled the replication of data using what Nehring calls a "high-maintenance scenario" that took 8 to 12 hours every other week (when everything went well, that is).

You Cannot Not Communicate
To overcome the host communication problems, Michaels implemented EMC's Symmetrix model 8830 and 8530 storage units and its InfoMover software. The software, which is installed on each host, is essentially "middleware" that allows the AS/400 and RS/6000 to communicate. InfoMover transfers files bidirectionally between any combination of mainframe, AS/400, UNIX, or Windows NT systems using the Symmetrix Enterprise Storage system and existing I/O (input/output) channel connections instead of the network. In other words, instead of the AS/400 and RS/6000 speaking to each other directly, data moves through the Symmetrix storage devices with the help of InfoMover.

Then came the data replication issue. EMC's TimeFinder software was chosen to replicate databases, allowing Michaels to create, in background mode, independently addressable Business Continuance Volumes (BCVs). The BCVs are local mirror images of active production volumes that can be used to run simultaneous tasks parallel with one another. "The TimeFinder product has automated what were previously manual processes, and the software/storage unit combination will allow us to cut our replication time by more than 50%," Nehring contends. "TimeFinder will also be used on a daily basis for backup and recovery functions, which will take anywhere from half an hour to two hours depending on the size of the database." With this product, backups can be executed while the network is "hot" or "cold," making downtime unnecessary to complete a full backup. Michaels plans to continue to replicate data biweekly for now, with plans for weekly replication in the works as the company becomes more familiar with the product.

Michaels has also adopted DBTuner, a product from Precise Software (Westwood, MA) that EMC markets. DBTuner gathers information from Michaels' databases and storage systems, allowing it to monitor database performance. The product can pinpoint the cause of a performance problem wherever the problem occurs. For example, DBTuner can attribute I/O bottlenecks to specific elements of Michaels' storage applications. The product then outlines the steps needed to solve the problem.

EMC's PowerPath software interfaces Michaels' host servers to its 8830 and 8530 Symmetrix storage devices. The products manage I/O workload and provide the ability to move data between the host and storage unit at high speed, reducing I/O contention and retrieval intervals.

"Our primary concern was finding a turnkey solution because we support two different hosts. We didn't want to customize a solution that would end up costing us lots of money to maintain down the road," says Nehring. Helping to pull it all together is a service contract Michaels has signed with EMC's Professional Services Department.

Storage System Maintains Accurate EDI
The storage system Michaels has in place will be used to do more than facilitate communication between host servers and replicating data. Michaels currently uses traditional EDI (electronic data interchange) to communicate with vendors, but plans to implement a Web EDI program. Web EDI will interface with Michaels' merchandising and inventory applications that depend on the EMC storage solution. "The integrity of our stored merchandise data carries through to applications like EDI," Nehring says. Before this implementation, Michaels had stand-alone connected storage with the hosts.

Michaels is looking to upgrade its backup approach to provide mirrored storage for business continuance and disaster recovery. "We're also looking at SAN [storage area network] and NAS [network attached storage]," says Nehring. Right now the company uses IBM 3494 and IBM 3590 tape drives for backup. Nehring prefers to use all EMC products to complete its storage system because it will give Michaels the ability to leverage its existing storage devices and allow it to tier its data in storage as well.

To many retailers, the word "storage" remains either an enigma or simply a synonym for backup. Michaels, on the other hand, has taken advantage of the technologies that fall under the realm of the topic, and in doing so has given its enterprise access to potentially valuable data that was once locked away.