Sears triples its storage capacity

Sears, Roebuck and Co. plans to deploy 95TB of new storage capacity by April, tripling the amount it now has installed and allowing the retailer to consolidate two key data warehouses and build a storage-area network.

As part of the project, Sears is putting its inventory and sales data warehouse and another warehouse that holds its customer information on a single server. The company said it’s trying to make it easier for users to combine information stored in the data warehouses.

For example, Sears can now track sales down to levels such as how many size 6 spaghetti-strap cocktail dresses it sold in any of its stores on a particular day. But the US$41.1 billion retailer can’t see whether any of the buyers of those dresses also bought a swimsuit that day, indicating that they might be planning vacations.

That kind of knowledge would let Sears do targeted promotional mailings on other products, such as sunglasses in the case of the swimsuit buyers, said Jonathan Rand, director of merchandise planning and reporting at the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based company.

The storage rollout will increase the EMC Corp. disk capacity that Sears has installed to 140TB. Sears said it’s buying another 20 of Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC’s Symmetrix disk arrays, plus a new WorldMark Unix server and a Teradata database from NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio.

The technology will be used to combine the two data warehouses at an unspecified data centre in Illinois, Rand said. Currently, he added, the data warehouses are located at facilities in different states and don’t share data efficiently.

About 70TB of the new storage capacity will be devoted to the data warehouses, which will remain physically separate but will be able to interoperate with one another. The warehouses are scheduled to be running in parallel by the start of April, Rand said.

Sears is also working with EMC to wire together a 25TB storage-area network (SAN) that will be used to link data residing on various Unix and Windows NT servers supporting applications in areas such as human resources and enterprise resource planning.

The SAN technology was installed last month and is expected to be up and running soon, Rand said. The network will use Fibre Channel switches to pool storage resources for Unix servers made by Sun Microsystems Inc. and Windows NT systems from Compaq Computer Corp.

Sears officials declined to disclose the cost of the project. But according to Steve Duplessie, an analyst at The Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass., the price of the EMC and NCR hardware is likely to be as high as US$15 million. “It’s millions in just gear costs, and it’ll be more millions in services to get from Point A to Point B,” Duplessie said.

Wider Effort

Sears’ data warehouse consolidation is part of a wider effort by companies to use their customer information more effectively, Duplessie added. While many users have already moved their data storage systems into the same data centres to simplify management, he said, different databases often still can’t communicate effectively with one another.

About 5,000 Sears employees use the two data warehouses for analytical purposes, Rand said. They can get daily product sales information now, but the data doesn’t show what individual customers bought and correlate that with previous purchases.

Once the consolidation is completed, Rand said, Sears will be able to more tightly integrate data about customer buying habits with its inventory and sales records. “Obviously, with better information, we’ll be able to make quicker decisions,” he said.

The project should also speed up response time for end users because of an upgrade from the 450MHz Intel Corp. processors used in the retailer’s current NCR servers to the 900MHz Pentium III Xeon chips that are built into the new system, Rand added.

In addition to the hardware purchases, Sears is installing a mix of new storage management tools from EMC.