Incompatibility freezes grocer's data recovery

A natural disaster revealed that Kroger's storage backup system was in need of a major overhaul.

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A natural disaster at a manufacturing plant proved to Kroger Inc., the nation's largest retail grocery chain, that its storage backup system was also a disaster.

In the winter of 2000, an ice storm-related power outage shut down Kroger's Michigan manufacturing facility for three consecutive days. Customers couldn't be left in the cold, however, so Kroger had to find a way to ship that plant's orders.

"We took tape drives from the closed plant to another plant to restore data, such as previous histories for billing," says Keith Runyon, technology systems manager for Cincinnati-based Kroger. "We then discovered that the two plants' tape drives were not compatible."

Kroger manufactures products in 41 food-processing plants. Many of these products are sold in Kroger's 2,380 supermarkets and multi-department stores. The stores operate in 32 states under many different banners, including 788 convenience stores and 407 fine jewelry stores.

Until recently, Kroger gave the IT departments of its manufacturing plants "a great deal of purchasing autonomy. So, they bought their preferred brands of tape drives," says Runyon. As a result, the manufacturing plants used a mishmash of backup storage formats, including Digital Linear Tape (DLT), DDS/DAT or 4mm tape. The various facilities used tape drives from a mix of four different vendors: Boulder, Colo.-based Exabyte Corp., Milpitas, Calif.-based Quantum Corp., Boulder, Colo.-based Ecrix Corp. and Sony Electronics Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

The disaster at the Michigan plant made it clear that Kroger needed a standardized disaster recovery plan. So, Runyon began searching for a standard single tape technology that would fulfill the company's five basic needs:

  • Competitive pricing on tape drives and media
  • Low-to-high capacity tapes that could be used interchangeably in all tape drives, enabling small and large plants to use the same drives
  • 24X7 reliability
  • Compatibility with Kroger's existing computing environment, which included the Novell NetWare operating system, ArcServe backup software, Intel-based servers, Lotus Notes, WonderWare Protean (a plant-centric ERP solution) and Microsoft Access Database
  • Fast backups and restores for all plant operating systems and software applications

After evaluating several technologies, Runyon narrowed the field down to two vendors: Ecrix and Exabyte. Ironically, these two vendors are now one. They closed their merger on Nov. 12, 2001. Earlier in 2001, however, Runyon chose Ecrix VXA drives. "Ecrix was priced aggressively, had fast backup times, scalable capacity and a high-capacity autoloader," says Runyon. "Also, tape costs were cheaper overall."

During product evaluations, Ecrix drives came out ahead of competitors' drives in several ways. Runyon found that Quantum DLT 4000 tape drives cost about three times more than Ecrix VXA-1 drives. A typical plant's daily backup took about two hours on Ecrix and five hours on Quantum and Sony drives, he says. Exabyte's Mammoth tape drives also offered two-hour backup, but Ecrix's streaming data technology caused less wear and tear on tapes than Mammoth's mechanical method, according to Runyon.

The variety of VXA tape offerings was another winner. VXA tapes of any size can be used interchangeably with any VXA drive. Also, plants didn't have to pay for more capacity than they needed because Ecrix offered three different data cartridges: the 33/66(native/compressed, respectively) gigabyte V17 cartridge, the 20/40 GB V10 and the 12/24 GB V6.

An autoloader was a must-have component for Kroger's backup system because it gives personnel the ability to automatically run backups if they're going to be offsite. "With an autoloader, you're assured of consistent backup," says Runyon. "You take the human error factor out of it."

Finally, a careful examination of the performance history of existing products in Kroger manufacturing environments showed Runyon that Ecrix drives operated more reliably than the other drives did. "The reliability clinched it because it added to VXA's cost savings," says Runyon.

After installing VXA drives during mid-2001, Runyon was pleasantly surprised when throughput increased by 55%. "Our backup window time dropped from four hours to two hours," he says. With less downtime needed for backup processes, there is more time for computing systems to conduct business.

With Ecrix VXA, Kroger gained the ability to scale up as storage needs grow. "Our backup system now has room to grow for several years before we run out of storage space," says Runyon.

Best of all, VXA drives allow Kroger to restore data from one plant to another. That seemingly simple capability could save Kroger millions of dollars in lost shipments in the case of another plant systems failure.

"If a tornado rips the roof off of the computer room at a site, we can access that data on any other site's tape drives. That means we can get the damaged site up and running even if the computer room isn't functioning," says Runyon. "That gives us security and peace of mind."

For additional information about Kroger, visit its Web site.

For more information on Ecrix, visit its Web site.

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This was first published in November 2001

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