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New networking gear the right call for Wireless Retail

A hybrid networking approach allows a growth-crazy wireless company to dial in to a SAN with ease.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three Storage Innovator award-winning articles. Wireless Retail was given the Fall 2002 Storage Innovator award in the category of "Network Storage Strategy" on Sept. 17 at the Storage Decisions 2002 conference. The award was presented to Wireless Retail for its well-planned approach to networked storage.

When your company adds 1,000 stores and two new divisions in a single year, life in the IT department becomes a blur. In the scramble for the latest and greatest technology, you want to make sure you don't wind up on the bleeding edge.

Wireless Retail's growth has been staggering. The Scottsdale, Ariz., company sells wireless products and services from major U.S. carriers at professionally-staffed kiosks located inside large retail stores such as Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Menards. With 3,800 employees and 1,100 locations throughout the United States, the company plans to triple its number of stores by 2004. Now it's adding satellite television and Internet services to the product offerings.

"That's put a lot of stress on the IT department," says George Nathanson, the company's IT director. "My team is the best group I've ever worked with, but a lot of times we get laden with projects that are just ridiculous -- ridiculous timelines and ridiculous resources."

Wireless Retail used application servers with direct-attached storage (DAS) to store, manage and distribute its business applications and data. When it needed to add an application, it added a new server. The primary network consisted of 20 application servers at a colocation facility with standard Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards for connectivity to the IP/data network, and a backup site located at the Wireless Retail headquarters, connected by a leased DS3 WAN link. Deploying a new server was a no-brainer for the IT pit crew, but the hardware and colocation costs were adding up. Moreover, the company planned to move to a document imaging system to store customer contracts and saw its 1.5T bytes of data doubling in the next two years. It was looking like SAN time.

Nathanson knew that Fibre Channel was a solid but expensive technology, the "Cadillac of data services." Worse was the potential expense of added staff. "If we were to go Fibre," Nathanson says, "there's no doubt in my mind we could do it, but it would just take a lot more work."

Nathanson decided to go with an IP-based SAN, "the Volkswagen of data services," and had decided on Cisco Systems' SN 5420 Storage Router, an iSCSI product. Then, in April 2002, Cisco made an interesting offer. What about becoming the first beta tester for the SN 5428, a hybrid device with an integrated Fibre switch? The multiprotocol IP/iSCSI and Fibre Channel approach would give Wireless Retail the performance of Fibre Channel while letting staff manage the servers, applications and data using the familiar IP networking tools.

"We demonstrated to them that their exposure to Fibre Channel would be minimal," says Dan Klaers, business development manager for Cisco's storage products, "while the benefits of the SAN would be maximized because they could access their logical units of storage via IP without putting in a new network of Fibre Channel products."

The knee-jerk response was that it would be crazy to put something untested in the network. But Nathanson trusted Cisco "totally." So he sat down and did the math. When he realized that using the hybrid approach would allow him to make a slow transition onto the SAN, it made sense.

Wireless Retail worked with Cisco value-added reseller Avnet Enterprise Solutions of Tempe, Ariz., to help with the installation and infrastructure upgrades. "There were plenty of glitches," Nathanson says, "glitches that at the time seemed huge, but looking back, they were nothing that would be outside the normal scope of a deployment of this size." Cisco stood by every step of the way.

"They took the early adoption risk because they saw the huge return for their company," Cisco's Klaers says. "They deploy aggressive, state-of-the-art technology to be better than their competition."

While Cisco's technology has been around for a while, Nathanson says that the IP/Fibre combo makes Wireless Retail's installation cutting edge. Thanks to its ability to let the IT staff migrate slowly and carefully, it didn't turn into a bleeding-edge network. "We did whatever we could to make sure we weren't going to bleed," Nathanson says. "I can't afford to bleed at this point."

For more on Wireless Retail visit the company's Web site.

More on Cisco's networking gear can be found by clicking here.

Read about the winner of our "Living on the Leading Edge" Storage Innovator award here.

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