SQL Server Smoked The Competition – September 17th, 2015

sqlsAlan Bourassa wasn’t looking forward to Christmas this year. Barnesandnoble.com Inc.’s director of systems planning and design was facing retailing’s busiest time of year with computer systems he knew wouldn’t be able to handle the load–not a merry thought, unless a good application could help.

So Bourassa and colleague Jeanette Seip, senior project manager, decided it was time for a new approach. They dropped the Dayton, N.J., online bookseller’s outdated Hewlett-Packard Co. Unix-based order fulfillment system and moved to a Windows NT platform running Microsoft Corp.’s new SQL Server 2014.

The HP system was terminal-based and needed a daily batch processing window, during which staff couldn’t generate up-to-date packing lists. The site needed something interactive–a system that would provide real-time data about orders and stock levels 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Searches through the millions of books listed in the site’s catalog had to come back within seconds, or the system would be unworkable.

The decision to change platforms was easy, but the decision to move to SQL Server was not. The site was using SQL Server 2008 in other applications, and it struggled under the load.

Bourassa’s experience with SQL Server goes back to the first release of the product, Version 4.2, and his history with it made him dubious about the PC-based system being up to the online book retailer’s tasks. The company has approximately 1 terabyte of catalog and book order data that must be stored in its database systems–database sizes that PCs haven’t been able to handle until very recently.

Explosive growth was another factor to consider. The site already has 2.6 million books in its online database and had plans to add another 2 millions books.

These size and speed requirements had knocked SQL Server out of the running before. “We looked at Version 6.5 for robustness and stability, [but] it clearly was not there for enterprise computing,” Bourassa said. He added that in tests SQL Server 6.5 took hours to complete some queries. Bourassa also found SQL Server 6.5 unreliable; at times the database server corrupted indices that would have to be deleted and rebuilt.

Bourassa considered using Oracle Corp.’s Oracle8 on NT instead of SQL Server but had already decided to base the rest of the retail system on Microsoft components and the company’s Distributed Component Object Model architecture.

The clients on the three-tier Web-based order management application would be using downloadable ActiveX components, while Microsoft’s Internet Information Server would serve up dynamic Web pages at the midtier. Its Transaction Server would function as a back-end application server.

To minimize system integration issues, Bourassa decided to give the new version of SQL Server–which Microsoft had rebuilt from end to end–a go. Early SQL Server 7.0 code was implemented at barnesandnoble.com in July, and, even in beta form, the new release proved fast and stable.

“When we tested [7.0] against 6.5, we saw tremendous performance improvements,” he said. “[Microsoft has] gone down now to row-level locking, and we’ve had zero corruption issues with 7.0.”

The bookseller’s developers and database administrators found the upgrade’s new performance analysis tools a big step forward as well. “It’s all graphical in 7.0,” Bourassa said. “That’s been a big win for us also because our developers spend a lot less time figuring out how to improve the performance. Basically, the graphical analyzer tells us how to do it.”

Besides the new software, barnesandnoble.com went for a full hardware upgrade. The company is using Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant 7000 servers, each with four 400MHz Pentium II Xeon processors, hooked up to Compaq Fibre Channel drive arrays.

The database software (which can now use multiple CPUs to process a single query, something 6.5 couldn’t do) and hardware combination proved to be a real barnburner. “What used to take hours on 6.5 now takes less than a minute on 7.0 for us. It’s phenomenal,” Bourassa said.

The new system has been in production for about a month, and overall system performance has more than doubled. Bourassa said his company is breaking daily shipping records with the new system and is still only running at between 30 percent and 40 percent system capacity–all while providing 24-by-7 uptime. “I’m planning on going away, this is running so smooth,” Bourassa said.

Now that’s a Christmas present any IT manager would love.

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