Byte-a-blocker

Storage presents the kind of challenges that will have less hardy IT managers running for cover. But for those brave enough to face the minefield of regulatory and cost pressures and determined enough to derive value from their data, it offers an opportunity that, once conquered, could open doors to greater business gains.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  August 1, 2004

|~|LIFF-CA_m.jpg|~|Computer Associates' David Liff says companies should spend time on architectural analysis in order to save on deployment cost.|~|The growing volume of data is not the only worrying factor for those formulating storage strategies in today’s enterprise. The increasing complexity of storage needs is arguably having a much more profound effect. This is due to a number of factors, both old and new. There has always been pressure to reduce costs but now there is also an increasing drive to protect data and maximise its availability to support business efforts and defend against litigation. With these new priorities and a backdrop of exponential data growth, IT managers face quite a challenge. For many enterprises, storage needs are quickly changing as the business moves in different directions, meaning that IT managers have to adapt quickly to cope. Among the new challenges coming the way of businesses in the Middle East is the fallout from increased regulatory legislation in the USA and elsewhere. These corporate scandals have rocked the global economy and consequently the rules on holding information have been tightened, meaning companies are obliged to hold on to more data and for longer. Although less of such legislation has been passed in the Middle East, the region is not immune to its effects. “The law in the US states that not just American companies but also businesses dealing with American companies must comply with the rules,” says Andrew Calthorpe, senior corporate vice president, STME. “This means the regulations need to be taken seriously, even if Middle East companies are not legally obliged to follow them,” he adds. Not only is there pressure to make sure data is kept, there is also pressure to make sure that it cannot be altered or, if it is changed, that the alterations are tracked. This has had an impact on the technology deployed in storage. For example, IBM has released write once read many (WORM) tape drives. This ensures that data cannot be tampered with or accidentally over-written. A sea change is also occurring in attitudes to data. Far from seeing data as something simply to be filed away, many companies are viewing it as an asset to be utilised to boost business, for example in sales and marketing campaigns or improving customer support and loyalty. This brings an extra headache for IT managers — not only do they have to make sure that data is stored safely, they must ensure that information is at the fingertips of employees as and when they need it. This puts data retrieval at the top of the agenda for many IT managers. “The most important aspect of back-up is being able to restore quickly and effectively,” says Sarmad Ibrahim, call center manager and senior computer engineer, Dubai Civil Aviation. “We have six business units, each with its own restore requirements, so we need a policy to effectively manage this, making sure each unit is satisfied,” he adds. The company uses BrightStor enterprise back-up from Computer Associates to manage its storage solution, which comprises HP servers and tape drives. The clever vendors are adding tools to help companies shape their storage policy and extract value from their data, rather than simply providing capacity. A good example of a solution that helps with managing data, as well as saving hard disk space, is EmailXtender from Legato, a company recently acquired by EMC. EmailXtender creates a central archive of a company’s e-mails. The process saves hard disk space by eliminating the need for personal e-mail archives, ensures that all e-mails are stored in compliance with company policy, and makes e-mail retrieval more reliable. The buzzwords of today’s storage world such as storage area networking (SAN), consolidation and virtualisation all emphasise data management and control as much as the physical storage of data. Indeed, the movement of the storage market away from direct attached storage (DAS) to more sophisticated network based solutions — network attached storage (NAS) and SAN — is arguably the clearest indication of increasingly complex storage demands. “Customers are moving rapidly away from DAS because of the decreasing cost of implementing NAS and SAN solutions,” says Qais Gharaibeh, partner sales manager, EMC Middle East. “You will find that DAS is moving more towards the small business sector and is being replaced by SAN and NAS in the medium and large enterprise markets,” he adds. SAN is likely to prove more important in the future as internet protocol storage networking standards become established. It is early days for internet small computer system interface (iSCSI) and fibre channel over internet protocol (FCIP) but the technology will increase the viability of SANs for small businesses. It will allow storage area networks to use the ubiquitous network and internet connections available to transfer data, making remote storage more effective. “Fibre channel SAN has become more important and we can expect to see iSCSI and IP storage mix with fibre channel storage in the coming years,” says John Bentley, sales director, Hitachi Middle East. While iSCSI is not something that every Middle East enterprise has to deal with just yet, more businesses are beginning to consider consolidating their storage solutions and this sometimes results in the use of a SAN infrastructure. However, this is a business rather than a technology led decision, as IT managers across the region are keen to up the utilisation of their existing storage resources by sharing them among numerous application servers. “Consolidation to NAS and SAN is something we’re seeing more of,” says Philip Dawson, senior programme director, infrastructure services, Meta Group. “It’s a very important enabler, you need to do an effective storage consolidation before you can realistically tackle virtualisation of a data centre or server consolidation,” he says. While consolidation has obvious attractions — better utilising existing storage is always preferable to buying more storage devices — it is rarely an easy project to get right. This starts at the planning stage, where a common pitfall is that companies push forward too hastily. “Spend the time to invest in a good architectural analysis of your current usage and future needs,” cautions David Liff, director, BrightStor product marketing, Computer Associates (CA). “Without this, the time and cost of deployment can be much too high,” he adds. It also must be remembered that storage consolidation is not an install and forget solution. The on-going management of the project is crucial in determining its success or failure. “Many companies start with the right intentions but then they buy new applications that come with new storage and over time the company drifts away from the centralised storage ideal and therefore loses the benefits,” says STME’s Calthorpe. A logical extension of consolidation for many enterprises is using a virtualisation tool. This allows the pooling of various storage resources so they appear as one storage source. At face value its benefits are considerable, a virtualised system can direct data back-up to the most appropriate storage device if its usual destination is full, for example. “Virtualisation simplifies storage management dramatically,” says Stefan Zaude, director, network storage solutions, international sales Europe, HP. “[Users can] manage a virtualised storage pool with an easy to handle management interface. On top of that, simplified management increases the availability of storage systems, and the error rate of administrators drops,” he adds. Though virtualisation undoubtedly brings with it many advantages, it is worth sounding a note of caution. If a virtualisation solution is vendor specific, IT managers should ask themselves if the plus points it brings compensate for the debits that vendor lock-in can bring. “Virtualisation is often used as an excuse for selling a new platform,” says Meta Group’s Dawson. “A better approach is to use existing technology to cope better with workloads. However any virtualisation technique that better utilises storage space while using existing resources is a good thing,” he says. Virtualisation technology typically resides on the server or storage system level, but infrastructure focused companies such as Cisco and Brocade are seeking to provide an alternative using switch-based virtualisation. “The switch is the most sensible location for the virtualisation agent,” says Bernard Zeutzius, product manager storage networking Cisco Systems, EMEA. “This is the backbone of the network and it is more efficient having it here than on the servers,” he adds. Having the virtualisation agent on the switch saves having to deploy the software management component on each of the servers or storage arrays in the set-up. The main disadvantage of switch-based virtualisation is that the technology is in its infancy, whereas virtualisation in servers and storage arrays are starting to mature. That said, Veritas has adapted its server-based virtualisation software to run on Cisco’s MDS 9000 smart switch. Virtualisation can be a useful tool for the enterprise but it is simply a tool. It must be tightly integrated into a greater plan that makes the business interests of the company of paramount importance. This is where information lifecycle management (ILM) comes in. Storage vendors need to graduate from selling disk space to selling disks and providing technology and management tools that allow a company to formulate a strategy to deal with data and storage from its inception to when it can safely be deleted. ILM is a combination of processes and technologies that determine how information flows through a business. Central to ILM is the idea of tiered storage. This is simply prioritising data and assigning it a storage mode appropriate to its use. Therefore, records that are regularly accessed by employees and need to be quickly available should be stored on a company’s most modern, fastest access devices. For data that is accessed less frequently and with less urgency, legacy devices can be used. This means that ‘obsolete’ disk arrays and tape drives can find a use and need not be ditched simply because a faster solution is available. “We often hear from customers that products are rubbish. Even if they are from competing companies we know the products aren’t rubbish and it is probable that the products aren’t being used in the most effective way,” says STME’s Calthorpe. An effective ILM strategy is key to the success of today’s enterprise. If you don’t know where your data is and can’t harness it when you need it, many projects you wish to carry out can be hampered. If ILM is key to today’s business arguably the most important ingredient in a successful ILM strategy is standardisation. If users are going to take a holistic view of their storage system then it stands to reason that the different parts must be able to talk to each other. “Devices should speak a common language and use an open standard,” says Stefan Niemiec, data management sales manager, SE EMEA, Sun Microsystems. “It is no longer possible to say you must do it our way. This change has come about through business rather than technology factors,” he adds. Of course, disks are still important in the storage equation. It’s important to have products that are up to the task. If users need key data at a high level of availability then they need to have fast and reliable technology at their disposal. Although, it is taken more as a given these days that high quality technology is available and this is less of a differentiating factor between vendors, technology cannot be ignored. “Storage is still often a technology sell in the Middle East,” says Hitachi’s Bentley. “The business sell has not developed as quickly as in Europe and the USA. This is because regulatory compliance is not yet as important here, but it is on the way,” he adds. Companies must get the technology right but an altogether more slippery eel is determining and maintaining appropriate storage management and policies, as well as harmonising this with the technology. The challenges brought about by increased regulation and a desire by companies to maximise the revenue potential of the data they hold have pushed management issues to the top of the agenda. In today’s environment, the storage war will be won by companies that implement coherent business supporting solutions that perform a multitude of tasks, including storing data efficiently, ensuring effective data retrieval and having IT and network managers smart enough to know what data is where and how it can be used to further business aims.||**||

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