Soundbuzz's 6-terabyte music box

Changing business conditions have seen Soundbuzz grow its storage capacity 600 times in the last few years.

In today's fast-changing business climate, changes in regulations and improvements in technology can knock the best-laid business plans off kilter.

The best way to hedge against such vagaries is to build flexibility into your systems, to minimize any disruptions.

Sudhanshu Sarronwala,
Soundbuzz CEO
Digital music service provider Soundbuzz discovered this at the end of last year. Soundbuzz is involved in the backend of digital music distribution, by providing the technology platform and the content through online and wireless partners such as Telstra, Optus and M1.

The company had started with 100GB of storage when it kicked off in 1999 with Web sites. Having seen this space last until late 2003, the company upped it to 760GB last October. "We thought, well, 760GB, we've grown seven times, that would give us 70,000 tracks--we should be quite comfortable for a while, and then we were done with that in a month or two," recalls Soundbuzz CEO Sudhanshu Sarronwala.

When the extra storage ("our awesome 760GB" laughs Sarronwala) was ordered, the music industry had not given any indication of the volume of songs that was going to be made available. That only came at the beginning of 2004.

"The libraries for digital music started growing very rapidly towards the end of 2003, when the licensing from the record industry sort of opened up," explains Sarronwala. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of tracks. We needed to keep those files in our database, therefore suddenly the need for storage changed very dramatically." With each song file taking about 4MB of space, Soundbuzz found that their recently-upgraded storage system became inadequate "literally overnight".

"We sort of went into a bit of panic mode, because we could see the wave of volume heading towards us, and we were not equipped to deal with it," he continues. "Then we decided we really need to look at something which was scalable over the next two to three years. Given the fact that our first predictions had all gone down the drain, we wanted to make sure that we didn't have to revisit this in six months' time."

In January this year, the company came up with the numbers in terms of what it needed to scale to, and went into tender mode to look for a storage partner. "It's a partnership rather than buying a couple of boxes," notes Sarronwala, "because this is something we're looking at for the long term. There's nothing more central to our business, because that's where the actual files reside, and it's a 24/7 business, and we service multiple partners. There's so many people depending on a steady supply of the stuff as their customers pull it."

Beauty pageant
The big decision was made over one weekend in early March. "We had everybody come in and do the beauty pageant over a Saturday afternoon. We were comparing different specs, and EMC had probably the best sales job. It afforded the best features and functionalities and intelligence in terms of what our system needed."

The intelligence of the operating system--how the servers interact with the hard drive, to access the files--appealed to Soundbuzz's IT specialist. In EMC's database-oriented system, when somebody sends a query, it basically interacts with the database to go and fetch the correct piece of music to either stream or download. It sends the query into the media servers, which then interact with the external storage.

"When you're taking a decision that involves the core of your entire business, cost is not your deciding factor."
Soundbuzz CEO Sudhanshu Sarronwala
Sarronwala, for his part, was persuaded by the scalability of the system, and EMC's status as storage specialists. "As digital music specialists, we always find the value of a specialist to be deeper than the value of the generalist," he says. "Of course there are lots of other systems out there that can probably give us comparable features and intelligence in their hardware and accompanying software, but this is what EMC does, what they're about. They know storage better than anybody else, and that to us strikes a chord. If they don't do that better than anybody else, they wouldn't be so big."

Strangely, cost was not a major factor in the deciding process. "There was the cost decision plus the scalability, but when you're taking a decision that involves the core of your entire business, cost is not your deciding factor, unless it's so exorbitantly different. Plus minus 10 percent is not a decision-making parameter," muses Sarronwala, "but scalability and specialization is." As an added bonus, the specialists at EMC worked so quickly, they implemented the storage system a day or two early.

Soundbuzz deployed two units of EMC's CLARiioN CX 500 networked storage system, EMC Navisphere for the management of storage, and EMC PowerPath for the communication between servers and storage. The system is scalable up to 12 terabytes--effectively 1.2 million songs--with full redundancy. "We're not yet there, but we know that scaling the system up to 1.2 million songs is a realistic benchmark, given the volume of content that's being made available."

Thus far, Soundbuzz has already scaled twice and is in its third stage of storage expansion. It has implemented and has got on order a combined total of about 6 terabytes. "We're full up with about four or five terabytes already, and we've just ordered the next terabyte with redundancy, says Sarronwala. "What we have actually spent on the EMC system compared to the 760GB is 10 times. That stands to some form of logic, because the 760GB would have given us 70,000 songs, and we're talking about 600,000 songs in 6 terabytes—we're in that ballpark in terms of the multiple of volume as well."

Apart from the scalability, the biggest benefit is "it works pretty damn well", smiles Sarronwala. "It's not given us a single problem, and the customers we service are not complaining of downtime or the ability to retrieve a piece of music--that, to me is a big benefit. Obviously the tech guys will look at the latency of pulling a song out, or the load balance. I think so far so good."

As Soundbuzz's business expands into new areas, notably audio and video streaming, the storage may come in handy.

"We're going into audio streaming. This is not something that we may have estimated in the past. We may have to replicate a 300,000 song library into a different format for mobile because suddenly the networks can support it," says Sarronwala. But this new development won't worry his company. "We have another 6 terabytes to go on this system."

Susan Tsang is a freelance journalist based in Singapore.