Data centers handle holiday rush

For every extra CD bought, book picked out and slot machine pulled during the holidays, an electronic transaction is made. And data centers have to be able to deal with it all.

The weather inside a data center can be frightful unless precautions are taken around the holidays.

System demands can skyrocket for data centers running companies that get busy this time of year. Their contingency plans include running more servers or upping utilization rates for a few months. And it means keeping a closer eye on systems to make sure they're not about to overflow with traffic.

But for at least three data center managers, the holidays don't mean having to bring on extra staff.

Trans World Entertainment Corp., which runs more than 800 music and movie stores in the country -- including FYE, Coconuts, Strawberries and Sam Goody -- has to be able to handle the surge in credit card transactions and warehouse activity that comes along with people buying gifts for their loved ones.

John Hinkle, chief executive officer (CIO) of the Albany, N.Y.-based company, said service has to be spectacular around the holidays because customers are more demanding than at other times during the year.

"People are out shopping today, and if you don't have it, they'll go somewhere else," he said. "People are more crunched in their shopping, more driven."

As a result, the company has to make sure its inventory is up to date at all times, and with the rapid pace of sales -- Hinkle said 40% of the company's sales is in the fourth quarter -- that means making sure the hardware can update those changes fast.

Trans World has an IBM System i5 570, a 16-way machine with 12 active processors running four i5/OS production and test partitions and an AIX partition running Oracle, along with about 10 Windows servers running smaller applications. Hinkle estimates that the average day around the holidays sees three times as many data transactions than during a normal day outside that time period, but that serious traffic spikes can lead to six or seven times normal.

Trans World has been on the iSeries for about 18 months, and lately it has gotten more proficient at resource management -- being able to allocate processing power to applications on an as-needed basis. During the day, transaction applications need muscle. At night, backup and batch processing take precedence.

Without the ability to move around resources, Hinkle said the data center would probably have to use 14 of the 16 processors in its machine. As it is, it can keep processor use to 12, with four dormant chips in case of extraordinary traffic.

Data center wild

Over at Mohegan Sun, a casino in Uncasville, Conn., every day around the holidays is a weekend. What that means is foot traffic is up. And when foot traffic is up, more slot machines spin and more hotel reservations are made. And it's the data center that has to handle it all.

The casino has two data centers onsite in two fiber-connected buildings about a mile apart from one another. In one, an iSeries 830 runs front-end applications managing the slots and hotel systems. On the other, back-end applications, like the casino's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, churn away on another iSeries box. Then the servers back each other up.

Right now, there's an ongoing promotion by the casino called Holiday Shopping. Patrons who have a casino player's club card get mailed coupons that they can use in shops on location. That in turn brings more people into gaming at the casino.

"We're running 6,250 slots out there, so if you bring in more people with coupons, there are more people playing," said Mike Tracey, director of computer operations. "When there are that many people, the equipment is going to be hit harder than normal."

Tracey said the data center staff is "certainly more sensitive, certainly more aware," but the holidays happen every year so they're used to monitoring the systems to make sure nothing goes awry.

Online shopping surge

At GSI Hosting, a data center hosting company, systems utilization bumps from 20%-30% to 70%-80% around the holidays. The company has 200 direct customers, many of whom do a lot of sales online and a large percentage of those during the holidays.

"Obviously the general public is becoming more comfortable with shopping online, and with the holiday season being the biggest shopping season, it puts pressure on systems to be able to handle that load," said Patrick Ohler, vice president of engineering and client services at GSI.

The company has two primary facilities and one backup; combined, it has about 30,000 square feet of raised floor and the ability to double that if growth continues. Though it does have some Unix-based servers, most of its systems' infrastructure is x86 servers running Windows and Linux. Sometimes GSI's customers provide their own equipment to be hosted in GSI's data center, but when GSI buys its own servers, they're usually from Dell Inc.

GSI uses software from Tripwire Inc. to help monitor credit card transactions, mainly to detect unforeseen changes and protect against security violations. GSI then offers that security feature to its customers as an add-on option.

"In environments where we are adding servers to meet loads, the software itself becomes even more important as transaction volumes increase for us," Ohler said. "If we had to do that manually without their tool, it would be a very labor-intensive process. It's a huge timesaver for us."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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