Plaxo Prepares for Growth -

Plaxo Prepares for Growth

Faced with exponential growth of its Web-based address book service and online transaction processing (OLTP) database, Plaxo Inc. abandoned its server-attached storage for the easier manageability of a SAN solution from Pillar Data Systems.

Thanks to a recent agreement with AOL to bring Plaxo's Web-based contact management services to the interactive service provider's 27 million worldwide customers, Plaxo could potentially see its user base grow by five-fold. The Web-based contact management vendor currently has more than five million users for its free and subscription offerings.

"We knew we had to have a storage infrastructure that would scale well and grow into a solution that was more manageable," says Ethan Erchinger, operations manager at Plaxo. The company's OLTP database is a core component of its online management business.

Plaxo's agreement with AOL will enable AOL members and AIM users to import, export and synchronize contact information with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express and third-party Web-based e-mail address books with their AOL Mail and AIM Mail Address Books.

Kicking the Tires

In June, just prior to announcing its partnership with AOL, Plaxo began a storage requirements assessment and search for product. The company was interested in several criteria categories: manageability, performance, measurability and predictability.

"What we knew was that our direct-attached storage wouldn't scale," says Erchinger. Additionally, he notes that it took a lot of time to deploy a lot of small machines. Being a small IT shop, with two people in operations supporting a large infrastructure, the company was looking to lessen the management burden.

When Plaxo began its search, it had nine pairs of databases on 18 servers. Each of the Dell 1750 PowerEdge class servers had one terabyte of capacity on external Dell PowerVault 220S Disk Expansion Arrays.

"We looked in multiple directions for a solution that would best meet our needs," says Erchingler.

Noting that Plaxo was having stability issues with the Dell servers, one search option was to look at other vendors for direct-attached storage. Other options including augmenting its current solution, or moving to a SAN.

It didn't take to long to figure out that the SAN was the way to go. The company looked at three SAN solutions: Hewlett-Packard's StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array (EVA) line; Hewlett-Packard's StorageWorks XP Disk Array line; and Pillar's Axiom Storage system.

Plaxo first turned to HP and went through a tech briefing on its SAN products. According to Erchinger, EVA didn't scale well and wouldn't meet the company's needs. "The XP line was super high end," he says, adding the cost per terabyte was too expensive and the solution didn't fit where the company needed to go.

Pillar came into the picture by referral. After talking to the vendor, Plaxo did a proof of concept at Pillar's facility. The demo involved one database pair that was used in production on a replica of the same hardware, moved to Pillar's Axiom equipment, where a benchmark suite was conducted.

According to Erchinger, performance on the direct-attached storage was about 700-800 random I/Os per second, per system. On the Axiom system, the performance measured 1,100-1,200 random I/Os per system. "We tried to break the system we were using, but it had good performance and stability," he says.

The proof of concept was followed by a trial run over three weeks on one machine. Pillar provided the host bus adapters (HBAs) and the switch for the test, according to Erchinger.

"We liked the product's manageability, it had a clean interface, was simple to operate and the price was a good fit for us," he says.

Taking Delivery

Just a few weeks later, Plaxo took delivery of the Axiom Storage system. The company purchased four Axiom storage units for a total of 100 terabytes of storage spread across primary and secondary units, and replicated between them for failover. According to the company, the four Axiom systems are all mirrors of each other. Each system is configured with one pilot policy controller, one slammer SAN controller, and 12 brick storage enclosures. The companies declined to say what the system cost.

With the help of Pillar's professional services group, the system was up and running at a co-location facility in a matter of days. "They unloaded the boxes, configured the alerts and e-mail addresses, and turned it over to us," says Erchinger.

Plaxo did the provisioning for the hosts. The first thing the company did was take five database pairs, a half terabyte each per system, spread across the four Axiom storage systems. "It was very stable and if there were any issues, we as well as Pillar got an e-mail notification," says Erchinger.

The next step in the rollout was migrating the remaining database pairs, the last big push to ready the company for the AOL partnership.

To complete the SAN implementation, the company also added two Brocade Silkworm 24000 director switches, each with four blades and 16 ports per blade. The company also bought a Penguin Computing Altus 2100 database server.

For Erchinger, the benefits of the SAN are clear: simplified management; quick allocation of new systems; statistics and trends analysis make performance easy to measure; and reliable support. "Monitoring is also central with a scriptable view," he adds. The software components of Axiom Storage system include storage provisioning and storage management.

One added benefit that Plaxo wasn't expecting was lower costs for power. "The Serial ATA drives run cool, so power usage has been good," he says.

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