When it came to SANs, however, Pipkins CTO Joel Gilbert was no early adopter. He waited until the right SAN came along to switch to shared storage in 2013. That product was Fusion-io's ioControl.
St. Louis-based Pipkins started out selling its software on an Oracle database, but entered the hosting business around 2000. One of its large customers went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and lacked the capital to purchase new software, but had operating money. "On a whim, I said, 'we can host this,'" Gilbert said. "This was before the term 'SaaS' was even coined."
Pipkins' SaaS model did not require a SAN at first because it could host each customer's software on a separate server. As the business grew, Gilbert sought an easier way to scale without ruining its cost model.
"We were having to add servers, but our I/O capacity was not fully utilized," Gilbert said. "We would run out of other resources on the server platform before we would saturate the I/O bus. When I purchase equipment, I like to get every ounce of performance out of that before I have to purchase new equipment."
Despite outgrowing his server-based storage, Gilbert was no fan of traditional SANs.
"When we outgrew server capacity and looked for a SAN, all the dog and pony shows came through," he said. "We looked at EMC, [Dell] EqualLogic, they all had their gigantic boat anchor chassis with all these disks to get the I/O up. I said, 'Spinning disk should go the way of the dodo bird, it's a ridiculous thing and I can't believe we're still doing it.' I thought there has to be something else out there."
He found something else when his PCIe flash card vendor Fusion-io acquired NexGen, a startup that sold hybrid arrays combining Fusion-io's cards and spinning disk. NexGen arrays also included a performance quality of service feature that allows administrators to guarantee a performance level to each application.
Pipkins bought its first NexGen array from Fusion-io about a year ago, before Fusion-io renamed the product the ioControl SAN. Now Pipkins runs PCIe flash in shared storage instead of on individual servers.
Pipkins uses n5-50 ioControl systems, the smallest capacity units of the product line. Gilbert won't disclose how many systems he has or the exact configurations because of competitive reasons, but the n5-50 is available with from 730 GB to 1.46 terabytes (TB) of PCIe memory cards and from 16 TB to 160 TB of raw hard drive capacity.
Performance is crucial to Pipkins' storage because the company sells monthly software subscriptions with no long-term agreements, according to Gilbert. Customers, who use Pipkins' call center software to track employees and make real-time decisions, have an opportunity to cancel 12 times a year. That leaves no tolerance for latency.
"We believe in proving ourselves every month," Gilbert said. "As part of that, we cannot have performance hits. As our customer base grew, the demands on a server platform and infrastructure were getting bigger."
Gilbert said his choice of a SAN came down to Fusion-io and Nimble Storage, which also sells hybrid arrays. He said he liked Nimble's architecture but it couldn't match ioControl's performance.
Still, Gilbert said Fusion-io can learn a few things from Nimble when it comes to software features. As a long-time customer, he has spoken to Fusion-io developers about features he would like them to add to ioControl.
"The first thing is replication," he said. "I'd like to see them take steps to configure the replication target and limit bandwidth capacity because you don't want to saturate bandwidth over the WAN. Their reporting features are also a little lacking when you look at them next to Nimble. But we're comfortable with those warts with Fusion-io as long as the system keeps up its performance."