Using Flash Memory For Faster ERP Transactions

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 05-10-2013

By Michael Vizard

Sometimes improvements in application performance seem a little abstract. It’s hard to say that faster applications are something the average end user is going to see or even notice. However, when a particular job or task gets done faster, it can have significant implications for the business as a whole.

A case in point is Pella Corp., a manufacturer of doors and windows for homes and office buildings, which recently replaced a few of its storage area networks (SANs) from Hewlett-Packard with Violin 6000 Flash Memory Arrays from Violin Memory.

According to Jim Thomas, director of IT operations at Pella, while the move resulted in ERP transactions running five times as fast, the reason that capability matters to Pella has more to do with the margin of error it provides than the raw performance of the applications.

“We run payroll every week and now have a margin of error in case there is a problem,” says Thomas. “That’s important because it give us a buffer.”

All told, Pella cut its nightly data load processing time in half, tripled batch throughput and reduced a three-hour payroll process to less than 30 minutes.

Thomas has been relying on SANs based on HP LeftHand Network technology that has been connected, via a Fibre channel, to HP Superdome systems. Even at those performance levels, it was clear the SAN systems were not keeping up, says Thomas.

“We wanted to take disk I/O, as a bottleneck, out of our model,” says Thomas. “We decided to connect the Violin systems to the Fibre channel to provide high-speed connectivity.”

Part of the reason for the new approach is that Pella wanted to make sure the investment in flash memory could be a shared resource for applications running on multiple servers. But even with the investment in four Violin flash memory arrays, Thomas says Pella will save about $150,000 each year.

Much of the disk I/O stems from a heavy reliance on virtualization that has allowed Pella to considerably reduce the number of racks in its two data centers in Pella, Iowa. Each center is located several miles from each other for the purposes of business continuity and disaster recovery.

“All our critical data is mirrored between the two data centers,” says Thomas.

As a result of making major investments in virtualization, Thomas says any reduction in the size of the overall IT environment created by replacing the SAN systems was a secondary benefit. In addition, electrical costs are relatively inexpensive for Pella, so reducing the amount of electricity consumed in its data centers also wasn’t much of a factor.

But even without including those factors, Thomas says the price of Flash memory products, compared with disk storage, has reached the point where using Flash memory has become affordable, especially when considering how inefficient most disk storage technology is from a utilization perspective.

Thomas was introduced to Violin Memory by Net Direct Systems, a reseller that carries products from both HP and Violin Memory. Pella evaluated various flash memory products, but determined that none of them were as mature as the Violin’s flash array technology.

As flash memory becomes less expensive, the use of the technology is expected to see rapid adoption in the enterprise. The degree and rate at which IT organizations will make the shift to flash memory for primary storage is, of course, unknown. But it seems certain that as the cost of flash memory comes down and the multiple issues associated with disk-based systems continue to disappear, adoption of flash memory in the enterprise will only accelerate in the months ahead.