Storage Virtualization for a Healthy Lifestyle

Health-club chain finds an IBM storage virtualization system helps it meet the rush of new customers who show up after the holidays

December 11, 2008

5 Min Read
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Wayne Rash, December 10, 2008, 11:40 AM

January was looming. Mike Geis, director of IS operations for Lifestyle Family Fitness, knew that he'd better be ready. In the fitness center business, January is like Black Friday in the retail business. Because of the combination of holiday excesses followed by New Year's resolutions, fitness centers do huge amounts of business in January.

The problem was that Lifestyle Family Fitness had grown to 56 fitness clubs in Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. All of them used Web-based applications hosted at the company headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla. Without an upgrade in performance, the surge in registrations in January would hit the company's data center like a tsunami. Geis knew that by January, he had to make sure his data center could meet the performance needs of his users at their busiest.

"We don't have raw terabytes we have to store," Geis says. "Our issue is performance, our application response was poor. Our end users saw poor performance." Geis knew the cause of the problem: "Our storage subsystem was the bottleneck."

Initially, Geis approached vendors about simply getting more disks as a way to spread out the storage traffic. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) "came in with storage virtualization," he says. "It has a lot of front-end cache. It's like a performance engine for I/O. Virtualization wasn't the primary reason we chose this, but we're enjoying the benefits."Most of the company's applications were written when it only had 10 clubs, and now it was facing a January with more than five times that many. "We knew that if we didn't do something we would melt," Geis says. The clubs do 40 percent of their annual business in January, and if the new systems didn't perform they wouldn't have a chance to make it up until the following year.

Geis started looking for an alternative in 2007, knowing that he had to have everything done by the beginning of 2008. But he also knew that he didn't have time to find the perfect solution, just one that would let him meet his needs and then be able to grow.

"We were an EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) customer, and our initial thought was to call EMC and buy more disks. But we brought in some other competitors and let them pitch. IBM came from a different direction." The best selling point? IBM said "You can keep your Clarion from EMC."

The fact that he didn't have to throw away his investment in hardware and wasn't limited in his choice for future storage was what first got Geis's attention. "I don't have to buy IBM storage. It's nice because the model has changed. It used to be that if you bought storage, you were locked in for three to five years. [Now] I can go with anyone I want to."

As it turned out, Geis did buy some storage from IBM as part of his six-figure investment. "We bought the SVC cluster, we bought a DS4700 loaded with storage, and we got to keep our EMC. We went out and brought in a DS3400 and loaded that up with SATA for file and print, some of the low-speed needs. You can't beat it for raw capacity for the dollar. We decided we wanted a different subsystem for the low-speed stuff."The choice of different levels of performance meant that Lifestyle Family Fitness had more options. "Highly transactional stuff like mail and SQL get the fast stuff," Geis says. "We decided to do disk backup on the SATA SAN."

Fortunately, IBM was able to turn around the installation of the new storage virtualization environment in time. "The system was available without downtime or delay for the month of January. We had six figures in sales. We protected our business."

Equally important, the company for once didn't have to worry that it would be unable to meet customer demand. "We were confident that we could handle whatever the business threw at us. We didn't have members walk out because of the delays."

In the past, such confidence wasn't the norm. "We had huge meltdowns" in the past, Geis notes. "First we bought a bigger server, but that uncovered the I/O issue. It took six to eight months of pain before we sat down with IBM."

What Geis hadn't expected was virtualization. "IBM was the first one to suggest a virtualization solution. We weren't asking for that -- we were asking for more disks. They packaged it in such a way that it didn't cost us more to virtualize it."But now that he has a virtualized storage system, Geis is learning that it's really what he needed all along. However, he's still working to take more complete advantage of what he bought, and he is making plans for his next steps.

"We'll continue to migrate more of our environment over to our storage network. In the past, it was just for the first-class data in our environment. We plan more storage and plan to migrate more systems over." Geis uses VMware, so virtualizing his storage provides even more flexibility. But he stresses that it's not something you just jump into, despite the clear benefits in his case.

"We'd have started sooner, but we had to understand our own data," he says. Until he worked with IBM to understand what he actually needed, Geis said he was looking for the wrong thing. Had he figured it out sooner, "My quality of life would have increased."

However, Geis was able to put the system in place in time, and it worked right the first time. "It was pretty much a home run."

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