Target's data centers keep pace with rapid retail growth

At AFCOM's Data Center World, technical architect Doug Hall explains how capacity management and forecasting has enabled his company to grow at a rapid rate and earn executive support for data center construction.

DALLAS -- Doug Hall could be the envy of every CIO whose data center is running out of capacity.

Hall, a technical architect at Minneapolis-based retail giant Target Corp., runs a 28-person facilities management team that sits within IT. The team's job is to make sure each of the company's 4,000 IT employees knows exactly how much capacity is available to them. More important, if someone needs a new server, there's a place to put it.

For every 130 stores, Target builds two distribution centers.
Doug Hall
technical architectTarget Corp.
It's not that Hall doesn't have space issues at Target's data centers. But by using data center capacity management and forecasting best practices, Hall and his team have clear visibility into data center operations. As a result, they've had little trouble making the case for new data center construction.

"We just finished a data center build," said Hall, who spoke last week at AFCOM's Data Center World conference. Two years ago his group was building a business case for going before its board of directors to ask for $130 million to build another data center. Target broke ground in October 2005 and took possession of the building in June 2007.

"During these last two years we've gotten a lot more tuned in with what we need to do with capacity management," Hall said.

He hasn't even begun to install servers in his new data center and he's already having conversations about building the next one. At most companies, business executives toss IT out of the boardroom for suggesting such a thing. At Target, it's a different story.

"One of the first things we do every time we open up a new data center is develop a master plan," Hall said. "What would the floor look like if it were completely full?"

Hall said this allows him to map where power distribution units, server racks and network equipment will go. He organizes each data center logically, with sections set aside for server racks, storage area network arrays and mainframes. He maps where equipment will go, or could go in the future, so he never has to go back and make costly changes to the facility later.

"Even when it comes to where we are going to put our modular cooling units, so when the pipe gets installed [during construction] it has a tap at each location for another unit," Hall said. "When it comes time to add additional capacity we're not ripping up floor and connecting into pipe, drilling into the floor to run new conduit. It's more expensive in the beginning but less expensive if you ultimately build out the data center."

"Good capacity management ensures no surprises," said Steve Yellen, vice president of product marketing at Aperture Technologies Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based vendor of data center management software. "That's really a good way to be operating data centers."

Yellen said good capacity management depends on being economical: You want to have enough capacity to support a good rate of growth, but you don't want to overprovision because management will see wasteful spending and support for future investment will wither.

"We're all walking the tightrope," Yellen said. "It's the classic case. I can either spend a lot of money to guarantee capacity, or I can try to walk very close to the edge and if I mess up I'm in big trouble. Or you can find the right way to do it. It comes down to having the right information to make better business decisions."

Hall said he makes sure all new equipment installed in his data centers lands within the parameters of his master plan. Then, as IT slowly fills up the data centers with equipment, he keeps careful track of remaining space, power, cooling and network capacity. And he keeps lines of communication open to all parts of the IT organization so individual teams know how much space they have available to them.

"By collecting all these statistics and keeping track of all this information, no one gets surprised when we come up to them and say they can't put one more server in the data center because there's not enough space," Hall said.

With a clear picture of how much room each data center has on an ongoing basis there are no surprises. IT knows how much room it has to grow, and consequently the business knows how much it can grow before it needs to build another data center. This is critical -- this year alone Target has installed 1,000 new servers (400 of them replacements of old boxes, and 600 totally new).

"Target builds 130 stores a year," Hall said. "And for every 130 stores, Target builds two distribution centers. That's hundreds of millions of dollars to build those stores, and these distribution centers are $100 million a piece. So they're already in the mindset that every year they have to build two distribution centers. So a couple years ago we go in and say we need this money to build another data center. Part of the sales pitch was, let's start to get into this mode that every so often we're going to need to build another data center. So at least it's in everybody's head that every five years, we need another data center."

By making data center construction a standard part of the conversation about overall corporate growth, Hall can show the rest of the business that good capacity management actually saves the company money.

"By doing some very strict capacity management planning by partnering with the other business units, we can justify building out," Hall said.

"It's huge. It [demonstrates savings] of tens of millions of dollars."

Daniel B. McNary, managing director of construction services at Syska Hennessy Group Construction Inc., a Los Angeles-based engineering technology and construction firm, said capacity management is critical to his clients who want to build new data centers.

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"Providing information to management is pretty much the key for our customers. You hear the CEO say, 'If I build a bigger closet for my wife, she's going to go out and buy more clothes.' They think if they build more space in the data center, IT is going to just buy more technology. Visibility for upper management is key to selling the need [for more capacity]."

Unlike Target, most IT organizations are still struggling with this concept, McNary said.

"I think most businesses are just learning how to do that," he said. "The last few years they've been learning how to explain to management what the capacity is and how to justify expansion. Cost justification is just a few years old. Historically, IT has never been good at it."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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