Data management underpins Wal-Mart’s business

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton welcomes sponsors to the website for 2006/7. He then reports from the 2006 PNEC, where Wal-Mart CTO Nancy Stewart gave an epiphanous talk describing Wal-Mart’s ‘manic’ approach to data and its iconoclastic, cutting-edge IT.

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Phil Crouse, organizer of the Petroleum Network Education Conferences (PNEC) Data Integration conference which we report from in this month’s Oil IT Journal, pulled off a considerable coup this year by persuading Wal-Mart CTO, Nancy Stewart to present a paper on the retail behemoth’s data management systems. To my mind, Stewart’s talk was the highlight of 10 years of PNECs. Instead of editorializing, this month I offer you a summary of her presentation which I believe may mark a turning point in thinking on the under-resourced and often overlooked activity that is oil and gas data management.

25 million customers

Stewart’s presentation showed how great attention to data and information management underpins Wal-Mart’s business. Wal-Mart maintains strong data models of what’s happening in its stores on a daily basis. No mean feat when you consider that in a single day there are up to 25 million customers and 12 million credit card transactions. Equally strong communications technology (that bypasses telcos and the banks) allows the company to process credit card transactions from any location in the world in under one second!

Manic about data

Wal-Mart is manic about data, ‘We keep everything! Data is the great enabler.’ Data is kept online for 2 years and then it is paged out to a second tier of storage. Wal-Mart reviews 300 million items a day to see if they need to be restocked and keeps track of ‘on-hands’ for 700 million items.

Outsource? No thanks!

‘We do not outsource or offshore because of our tightly integrated centralized model.’ Wal-Mart’s centralized Information Systems Division (ISD), located in Bentonville Arkansas, does a lot of its own development, tuning its technology to support its business.

11 mainframes

The company has a heterogeneous IT environment with 11 ‘single system image’ IBM mainframes each with 2,084 processors. There is one replenishment system for 700 million items, one HR systems for a million employees and a system supporting world wide trucking.


Each of its two redundant centers (‘plexes) has 40k mainframe MIPS compute bandwidth. Overall, network availability KPIs are 99.997%. Last December Wal-Mart achieved ‘six nines’ for its global network ‘and that includes Microsoft!’ In fact, Wal-Mart gets better performance in China by managing its data in Bentonville!


Performance is crucial for Wal-Mart’s business. The company loses $1,000/ hour per cash register that is down. A four hour outage ‘means we start to throw away perishables.’ Once, a 6 hour outage was deemed so critical that, ‘We filled the sky with planes to get it fixed’.


Bentonville is located in a tornado zone so everything is built hardened and there is a second ‘plex for tornado mode running. This was used most recently only a couple of month’s ago. To make sure everything works, Wal-Mart fails-over between the two ‘plexes once a month.


This year, Wal-Mart is upgrading its NCR/Teradata data warehouse with nearly 900 terabytes of storage. The aim is for a central, single version of the truth. Users can ‘ask any question any time’. Wal-Mart develops its own systems because the sheer size of its transaction volumes and data mart stresses commercial tools to breaking. The company is always asking ‘will we break the architecture’ especially of its single image store.

4 billion row table!

A 4 billion row table is used daily for sourcing and running the business. Wal-Mart exploits collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment (CPFR) to anticipate orders. Merchants are always finding better ways of interrogating the data and now the decision support systems use 60% of overall CPU time. Data mining recognizes that each store is unique and is tuned to clients’ needs. Rather than putting stuff that is ‘likely’ to sell into stores, Wal-Mart uses weather mapping to re-route merchandise to where it is needed.

Sacred cows

Stewart slaughtered several sacred cows of the IT business during her 20 minute presentation. Remember buy not build? Forget it. Distributed databases? Forget them too. Outsourcing? You got it. If you want to leverage IT to understand and improve your business, build your own systems that do exactly what you want them to do. Sure, Wal-Mart uses components from many vendors in its solution. Open Systems are prominent with Apache web servers and Linux deployed. Along with Teradata and IBM, SAS Microsoft and HP got a mention. But Wal-Mart’s data volumes, query requirement and need for precision make it hard for a standard product to fulfil. All this need not cost a fortune. Wal-Mart’s IT spend is ‘significantly under’ half a percent of turnover and the ISD gets the job done with only 70 full time employees.

Oil and Gas?

Wal-Mart’s enthusiasm for data contrasts with oil and gas which, as attendees to PNEC know, has neglected data management. In oil and gas, you can ask any question any time, but you maybe won’t get an answer right away! Oil companies are likely to offer their knowledge workers several different versions of the truth to chose from! The Wal-Mart case history provides much food for though for oil and gas majors and argues in favor of a radical overhaul of IT/IM strategy. With oil at $70 this ought to be a better investment than share buy-backs.

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