Outsourced Storage

The need for storage solutions is growing exponentially as businesses around the Middle East continue to generate masses of data. At the same time, more organisations are building technology into the core of their business processes. However, remote storage can be expensive and complex, as technical and economic issues have to be considered.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  October 31, 2004

|~|ARoberts_mandamus111.jpg|~|Alan Roberts, director of regional storage consulting firm Mandamus.|~|Dataquest estimates that spending on storage in the Middle East and worldwide will eclipse spending on servers. The analyst house also predicts that storage revenues will grow by 22% in 2004. The fact that businesses are creating and maintaining more information than ever is in turn creating new opportunities for storage vendors, who see the region’s data boom as a shot in the arm.

“The storage market in the Middle East is growing rapidly. Businesses are becoming aware of the importance of storing data. However, this is not because businesses are becoming IT savvy, but because huge amounts of data are being created,” says Narendra Thalreja, business manager of high availability IT services at Seven Seas Computers.

“In order to manage data, businesses have to continuously expand their storage infrastructure. Also, due to network vulnerabilities and growing number of users, companies are becoming concerned with the performance of their IT infrastructure and are starting to look at deploying the services of third party organisation,” he adds.

Remote data storage is an expensive affair and businesses in the region are trying to justify the cost of building and managing their own disaster recovery sites. It is difficult for IT managers to secure funding for such sites because the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the return on investment (ROI) are almost minimal; hence businesses are looking at outsourcing their data storage.

Cairo-based ECC Solutions, which offers managed backup and data recovery as a part of an overall storage services portfolio, says companies in the Middle East are beginning to see the advantage of outsourcing their data storage.

“The outsourced storage market is an essential part of IT outsourcing. [However,] companies are slightly resistant to the idea because the concept is new. The fact is that their data will be more secure at a data centre than at the customer’s premises,” says Hany Hussein, product presales manager at ECC Solutions. “Also, the need for outsourced storage is increasing with the increased need for disaster recovery, data ware housing and business continuity. We are expecting to see more demand over the next few years.”

To overcome customer mindset, several vendors have been touting new methods such as utility or pay-per-usage storage, managed storage services, storage provisioning and hosted models that offer businesses a wide range of options.

Alan Roberts, director of regional storage consulting firm Mandamus, which works with utility storage companies such as Creek Path and 3PAR, says businesses should adopt a hybrid model.

“Storage outsourcing on its own has become unattractive for technical and political reasons. The better proposition is to outsource the apps and services to a hosting provider and adopt a storage provisioning model, whereby customers pay by the gigabyte of data for storage at their site and remotely — this way they retain the data inhouse and save on costs and the managing of the data,” he explains.

However, prior to outsourcing the storage of their data, enterprises need to do their share of house keeping. They should be able to send data seamlessly to the outsourcing firm.

“Before they jump onto the storage services bandwagon, companies should get their economics right. The minute a price tag is placed on the outsourcing services, it becomes less appealing to businesses. Companies have to monetise the cost of data first before venturing into insourcing, outsourcing or disaster recovery. The investments should be based on their existing IT infrastructure, manpower, downtime, productivity and impact on goodwill before they allocate budgets,” says Tim Carlson, technical director, Continuum Solutions Intergation.

Bandwidth cost is another factor businesses have to consider. Remote storage has usually been associated with large corporations, which have expensive fibre channel or dedicated WAN (wide area network) links.

However due to the internet and its associated protocols, storage options have become more affordable. Companies can now chose to backup remotely over a public internet protocol (IP) network using virtual private networking (VPN) and storage technologies such as IP-SAN (storage area network), iSCSI (small computer system interface) or internet fibre channel protocol (iFCP) that complements the functionalities of fibre channel devices and networks by linking across TCP/IP networks at any distance.

Furthermore, customers can also mirror their data elsewhere in a data centre or on an IP network synchronously where data snapshots are copied to a different system. In case of errors, they can snapback or restore data at any point in time (PiT).

With realtime remote copy (synchronous), every update is sent to the remote location. For instance, if an application executes 100 writes of 10K blocks/sec then bandwidth to accommodate those disk writes is required. However, with a PiT solution, data is replicated every 15 minutes or every hour. ||**|||~|tim1.jpg|~|Tim Carlson, technical director, Continuum Solutions Intergation. |~|If the data is not being replicated at the primary site, tracks are marked when changed by the storage system. If the same record is updated 100 times, then only the last change that was made to the track will be shipped to the secondary location. In theory, this means bandwidth requirements may be minimal when using PiT technologies, but if the PiT copy is used frequently then there will be no significant reduction in bandwidth.

“What we are seeing is that IP based storage technology is being adopted by businesses at a much faster rate than the industry estimates. In this part of the world [the Middle East], if you are lucky you can have an ISDN or DSL 128 k/bps line. With that kind of bandwidth, this technology is ideal for businesses,” says Ashley Robinson, marketing director at Network Appliance, Northern Europe & Middle East.

However, having the means to store data at a different location doesn’t serve the purpose if an organisation cannot access the data when it requires it. Typically, disaster recovery sites have three kinds of services: hot, warm and cold. Under the cold disaster recovery category, although the data is replicated there is no service restoration incase of a disaster. This form of data recovery, which encompasses remote backup, outsourced storage and similar services focuses more on the safety of the data using an IP network than on service restoration.

Since disaster recovery services are closely linked and service providers bundle them with numerous other solutions, businesses may end up buying the wrong solution. Carlson says while disaster recovery, business continuity, business impact analysis and risk management are closely related, they are significantly different concepts, which deal with deferent levels of disaster recovery.

“Disaster recovery does nothing more than ensure your data integrity. It does not do anything for business continuity, which is built on disaster recovery. Businesses got to have data prior to having services. Most customers are buying into disaster recovery… thinking it will also protect them against outages. They have to understand that such sites will only protect them against the loss of data. If they lose their servers then they lose their services — a lot of people have this [huge] misconception,” he claims.

Unlike the US, Europe or the UK where disaster recovery, business continuity and storage services are clearly defined, the Middle East does not have such luxury. However despite the challenges, there is a growing demand for outsourced storage services in the region.

“The terminologies can vary from market to market, but they all fall under the disaster recovery umbrella. Outsourced storage per se is cold disaster recovery — just pure data replication. There’s nothing else to it and it is very basic,” clarifies Emad Abu-Zaid, senior sales manager at EHDF. ||**|||~|altayer1.jpg|~|Rajesh Singh, Infrastructure manager at Al Tayer Group. |~|Regardless of the method of disaster recovery a company adopts, it must ensure that it has enough appropriate data prior to deploying the services of an outsourcing firm. Al Tayer Group, which used to store its data inhouse in one central location, is now using the services of a third party to store its data.

The company’s rapid growth prompted it to embark on an ambitious remote storage strategy after seeing a wider range of choices in storage technology and service models. Al Tayer Group had more than three terabytes of data. The cost of scaling up its storage each year was proving to be expensive, while on the other hand backing up all the current and historic data was turning out to be a burdensome exercise.

The company also has disaster recovery facilities, but data is stored on disks and it is not in realtime. Al Tayer Group’s IT division, which has more than 50 servers running on Windows 2000 environment, looks after 600 users across its 25 business units. The company’s data centre also manages its JD Edwards ERP, SQL databases, MS Exchange messaging and backups from one central location.

At the end of each business day, the company’s IT team transfers the data onto tapes, which are then marked and sealed. Instead of storing the tapes at the same premises, Al Tayer hands them over to an unnamed third party, which stores them at a secure facility in Dubai.

Whenever Al Tayer Group needs information for accounting purposes or historic data analysis, it retrieves the tapes from the storage vault after notify the outsourcing firm. However, this manual approach towards storage backup will not serve the purpose in the long run, according to Rajesh Singh, Infrastructure manager at Al Tayer Group.

“Data outsourcing is expensive but there was a need for it at our organisation. We have had the infrastructure for several years, but the business didn’t demand it. Now, there is a demand and we can justify the cost,” he adds.

“Also, we had to ask ourselves what was more cost effective — to own it ourselves or give it to a third-party? By outsourcing, costs are shared across various companies. We don’t have to own the storage [hardware] because we only pay for the disk quota allotted,” Singh explains.

Al Tayer Group is now working out the costs and identifying the storage service provider it can work with. Singh is unable to disclose further details about the proposed disaster recovery facilities due to security issues, but says the company will have a proof of concept by next month and the implementation will be complete early 2005.

In order to transfer data to a disaster recovery site, Al Tayer Group is turning to asynchronous data replication using a VPN over ADSL, but the biggest concern of any company is giving out its data to a third party, who may also serve a competitor. To make sure that Al Tayer Groups’s data is secure, it is working out contractual obligations through service level agreements (SLA) and non-disclosure agreements (NDA).

Despite having a storage system in place, Singh doesn’t want to become complacent or wait for a worst-case scenario to justify the current initiatives. “If there’s a 9/11 kind of scenario in the Middle East and we have a crisis it would be difficult for the company to function without the data. The existing IT systems may serve the purpose for now, but that won’t be sufficient in the future. We may have a good backup processes in place, but to accommodate future demands, we need to plan our storage requirements now,” adds Singh. ||**||

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