Today, the ever-changing digital economy requires market innovators to embrace new levels of technical agility in order to maintain a leadership position. Flash based storage is playing an increasingly important role for many prominent companies on this front. One of these companies is Shutterfly Inc., the leading manufacturer and retailer of high-quality personalized photo products and services.

I recently sat down with Amy Henley, senior director of Internet Operations at Shutterfly, to discuss how technologies like flash storage are having an impact.

Q. How is “digital business’” driving Shutterfly to evolve its IT infrastructure?

A. As our business has evolved over the years, we have gotten very comfortable with almost-constant change. We offer a wider range of products and services than we did just a few years ago. And transactions on portable devices are also an ever-growing part of the business. As a result, it is critical that our business be as agile as possible in order to take advantage of emerging opportunities so we’re able to stay one step ahead.

We are in the business of delighting customers with an experience they’ve come to expect from Shutterfly, while offering them a variety of new options. There is little to no margin for error to perform as expected and to demonstrate continued improvement. IT may function behind the scenes, but its impact on the customer experience, as well as our overall business agility, is evident every day.

Q. What was your IT environment like prior to implementing flash? Beyond application performance, what were the technical and business considerations that led to your evaluation of flash?

A. Our number-one objective always is to deliver a world-class experience for our customers. We want the site to perform as designed every day for every customer. As our business was beginning to expand, we needed technology that would accelerate our growth. As a result, one of the first areas we took a good hard look at retrofitting was our storage. We questioned whether the mechanical disk storage we were using would ultimately end up limiting our potential or subjecting customers to unacceptable delays as demand grew – bottlenecking our ability to enhance our own customer experience. We knew we needed storage that would meet our performance requirements for the long term and wanted to leverage whatever was new in the storage world. So, we looked at all sorts of options, including flash.

Q. What were the most important business initiatives you addressed by adopting flash? What metrics were you trying to achieve?

A. Our business is “spikey.” The level of activity on our site can go through the roof at any given time. Without a reliable storage system to support these spikes, we’d risk disappointing customers, turning them away, which could manifest itself as a hit to our bottom line. We were looking for new innovation to introduce into our storage environment in order to reinvigorate performance and to prepare for future growth. Several things were also happening at about the same time. We were planning a move to a new data center; we were preparing to introduce new services and products; and we were seeing growth in both the number of customers and the volume of photos they were uploading. We were interested to see whether all-flash storage could offer benefits on all of these fronts and turns out– it could.

Our primary objectives were to: increase the density of storage to drive down energy and facilities costs; enable upgrades-in-place to improve service uptime and revenues while also reducing operational costs; improve response times for customers interacting with our services to improve customer satisfaction and lifetime value; and deliver consistent, reliable performance to fully monetize the “spikeyness” of our business.

Q. What does flash provide for you that couldn’t be achieved with other approaches?

A. Three things, mainly. First, the speed of access means we don’t have to worry any more about performance problems, i.e. storage is no longer a bottleneck for us. Where we have implemented flash, our response time has dropped from 5ms to 1ms – a 500% improvement. And that means customers have the kind of experience on the site that we want.

Second, the significant data reduction enabled by our Pure system – an average of 4.5:1, and up to 15.8:1 on MongoDB– means far less CapEx spend on equipment and on space, than disk-based alternatives. In fact, our transition to flash storage has solved our performance and space issues for at least the next three years, ultimately saving us in the long term on the OpEx front (with less to power and cool over time) as well.

Third, flash gives us the confidence to deploy new services and products without fear that the customer experience will suffer. One of our newest services, ThisLife, has been very popular with customers, and we’ve been able to handle the demand on our site while actually freeing people up internally to focus on other pressing projects. This confidence and agility translates into positive impact on our bottom line, and also helps us continue to innovate so we maintain a competitive edge.

Q. Were there any unexpected business benefits you gained with flash storage?

A. I would say the scale of the benefits has surprised us. We expected to get performance improvements, but not to the degree we have experienced. The same is true of data reduction, which has proven to be an added bonus, as our new data center charges by the amount of space we occupy. To get more performance for less space has really been valuable.

Going to all-flash storage was a strategic initiative for us and we’re pleased with the transition so far.

Q. What criteria should decision-makers consider when adopting a new technology like flash storage?

A. The most important thing is to be clear on your objectives and specifically how they roll up into the overall objectives of the business. Questions to consider might include: What business issues are driving the demands on IT? How does the new technology improve IT’s contribution to meeting those objectives? How does this make life easier for the CIO and his or her strategic imperatives? How can new technology make us perform better as a business, both to our internal and external constituents? It’s important to be very clear on the connections between the technology issues and the business issues up front.