The Skinny on Scalability

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Scalability is a bit of a buzz word these days. Some experts struggle to find a consistent definition, but it remains an important concept for understanding the growth-related characteristics of businesses, and of the systems, such as ERP, that support them.

As I now reassure customers on a daily basis, SYSPRO is a paradigm of scalability. If you only sold ten widgets last year, but this year you’re on track for ten million, don’t be alarmed by what may appear to be an overwhelming increase in data and transactions. Whatever your needs, SYSPRO can handle it. Using the same core software, with (for example) a bigger server environment, your business can smoothly expand from a handful of users to over a thousand.

In its most general sense, scalability means that whatever you’re doing, you can do it in a bigger way, even through times of exponential growth. Wikipedia defines this as “…the capability of a system, network, or process to handle a growing amount of work, or its potential to be enlarged in order to accommodate that growth.”

That, on the face of it, does not seem difficult to wrap one’s head around. In reality, however, many businesses seem unaware of the scalability of their existing ERP solutions. It is not unusual to see a company respond to rapid growth in a knee-jerk fashion, by shopping for a whole new ERP. The irony is, that if they understood the potential of the software they already had, they could probably save themselves untold time and aggravation (not to mention thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars).

With that off my chest, let’s talk about planning for growth. What aspects of your system need to scale? Are your current hardware specifications adequate? Are a few sticks of RAM sufficient to give your server the boost it needs? Or does your ERP need a complete overhaul? Whether you do it yourself or hire a SYSPRO consultant, a systems audit can give you a better picture of your actual needs.

There are some things you can count on. To start with, you cannot hang on to your ten-year-old 32-bit PCs running Windows XP and expect to remain competitive. The hardware lifecycle is three years; it evolves like your company and ages like your car.

I highly recommend setting goals, and working towards their outcome from a scalability point. This puts you on your front foot, making you proactive rather than reactive to situations that arise. In setting goals, I try to steer customers towards the 80/20 rule, more formally known as the Pareto Principle. According to the Pareto Principle, 80 percent of your reported software issues are caused by 20 percent of your software issues. Likewise, 80 percent of your software’s value comes from 20 percent of its functionality. Identifying the all-important 20 percent will allow you to allocate time and resources optimally.

Now let’s consider the dimensions of scalability. Scaling vertically (scaling up) involves adding resources to a single node in a system. Adding CPUs to a server, or hard drives to a RAID/SAN storage, are examples of vertical scaling. Scaling up existing systems also enables the effective use of virtualization technology.

To scale horizontally (scaling out), is to add additional nodes to a system that functions as a single resource. Examples of horizontal scaling include adding a new computer, or an additional Web server to your environment. Technologies such as clustering solutions, distributed file systems and load-balancers can help you implement horizontal scalability.

There’s a great deal more to say about scalability, but we’ll leave that for another blog. In closing, let me add that scalability should be defined relative to the size of your market and your market share projections.

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