By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: Why do you have so many data center requirements in your business? What is going on in your data center?
MS: Well, you have to understand that we are a very, very data intensive company. We manufacture widgets. We do not stock furniture, but we are dealing in furniture configuration. If you go into an office and sit down at a workstation in a cubicle, you are not sitting down at a desk, you are not sitting on a chair – you are sitting on thousands and thousands of discrete parts and pieces that went into these components. Let me give you an example. A typical customer for us is, say, the New York Yankees or Horizon World Headquarters or King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Dubai. King Abdullah University had between 500 and 600 trailers of knock-down parts. When you are talking about 500 to 600 trailers of these parts that are made to order and the time that this stuff is assembled and brought to the site, it all has to all fit in. It all has to be just right.
Now if you think about the data we deal with, say the number of AutoCAD drawings that are going back and forth for each project, the number of e-mails along with attachments and rendering, or the number of data files – say Excel documents and PDFs – it is huge. We also deal a lot in government work. So, for example, we are doing work for the government defense information systems administration, which is the IT branch of the Army, the Navy and the Marines. Therefore, we just can’t just have stuff sitting on a server somewhere. We can’t afford to have information that gets lost, and we can’t have a server that goes offline. We have all these projects going all around the world, and these projects have immovable deadlines in terms of when this stuff goes online, when it gets assembled, and when the trucks and trailers have to be on site in the right order. Consequently, we are extremely heavily data intensive business, and we have people working at all times of the day and night. Because of that we, segment our data and replicate it to multiple data centers such that if our data center develops a problem or one of our servers in a data center develops a problem, it is not going to be an issue. One of our e-mail servers in New York City may be replicated to a completely separate e-mail server also in New York City and then replicated to a data center in Albany such that that data is absolutely not going to go offline for a second, and because of that, we have a lot to keep track of.
In the past, we maintained our own data centers because we wanted to have control. We didn’t want to worry that we had a server in some co-location data center somewhere where we couldn’t put our hands on it if something would happen to it. Someone would have access to it. Initially, we operated our own data centers, but now we are moving away from that to managed centers. It is actually managed data centers in a carrier switch, and from there we are going to be moving toward a cloud-based offering. In the end we are going to have a hybrid setup where we have data in our own servers in a carrier switch so that it is on the MTLS network at all times. Then on top of that, we are going to have our data replicated to a cloud offering. What we are going to do is, first get rid of all the data centers that we own, enter into a data center that is controlled by our carrier, and from there move to a cloud. The ultimate goal is to not own the servers at all and to move to the cloud entirely. But we are doing it in steps.
SM: Do you plan to move to an Amazon cloud or something similar?
MS: We will go to Amazon, probably. But we have talked to Rackspace and also to Microsoft, because we are heavily a Microsoft shop. There is a lot of value in our going to a managed Microsoft Exchange, or say a managed SharePoint offering from Microsoft.
But we are not going to Microsoft for a public cloud offering where we store things in a sky drive or things like that. We can’t do something like that, but we are considering the possibility of a managed Microsoft Exchange, a managed Microsoft SQL Server setup, and a managed Microsoft SharePoint. Those are intriguing to us. The problem is that right now, Microsoft is basically offering an all-or-nothing kind of cloud offering. They say, give us your Exchange business and we will host your Exchange, or give us your SQL, give us your SharePoint and we will host it. What we want is to have that opportunity to have that one copy of a replicated server that lives under our control so that we still have our hands on that one server. We can’t get that from Microsoft just yet, but they tell us that it is coming.
SM: This is very interesting! Who are the real users of these data and this data infrastructure? In other words, is your business such that as you distribute furniture, you are getting projects, you are assembling and distributing furniture – are all these projects managed by your internal people, or are there others on the ground such as project managers or system integrators touching this data depository?
MS: The answer is yes and no. In terms of the projects themselves, we handle it. Say a company such as Computer Associates, which is one of our clients, opens a new office in Boca Raton, Florida, and that office has 16 floors in an building in Boca Raton. We will work with Computer Associates’ furniture resource people in Islandia, New York, who are planning the project. We typically work with them and share data through Microsoft SharePoint or specific Web portals, sometimes maybe by e-mail. We share data with them for the project.
SM: You are sharing this project data with clients?
MS: We are sharing information with our clients that is required to set up and manage the projects. For example, we will send them estimates of what we think the furniture is going to cost. We set up a quote. We exchange photographs and other information on the specifics of how they want the furniture set up. One of the things about contract furniture is that the same chair can have 300 different fabrics, 20 different castors, or 10 different arms. So, there is a lot of back and forth in terms of design choices. Our clients send us AutoCAD drawings of how their floor is laid out. We populate it with furniture layouts and show them the configurations we think would be the best use of space. At times they have a space planner, so we also work with them in the mix. So, you see, there are a lot data and decisions involving drawings and layouts that are going back and forth to the client during the planning stages. But once the project is underway in terms of the order status, the next part about where are the trucks and the installers, all of that data is going to be handled by us internally. We work with customers to make sure that they get what they want, but once a project is underway, it is we who deal with the data.