Solving The Storage Riddle

Businesses employ a variety of storage services to help them chart their way through proliferating storage options (Originally published in Information Week)

November 21, 2005

8 Min Read
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Storage decisions once were easy. You bought a computer, and it came with an internal hard drive or a storage array. But in recent years, storage has become more complicated as the technology evolved and new rules and regulations mandate the retention of vast classes of information for many years. Add to that the growing threat of stolen data and identity theft and a morass of other technical and business issues, and you've got a pretty perplexing set of concerns.

As businesses spend more on storage systems, there are questions that can't be ignored. Storage decisions can have an impact on the bottom line and, in some cases, how well a business performs. That's why more companies are looking at various kinds of storage services and outside advice as a way to answer some of those questions.

Storage services are divided into four areas. Two aren't new: hardware maintenance and support, which includes physical repair, troubleshooting, and warranty upgrades; and software maintenance and support such as operating systems and infrastructure software, installation, and migrations.

Among the new services is storage consulting, which covers strategic, architectural, operational, and implementation planning. There's also a broad category of management services that includes systems operation or support, capacity planning, asset management, availability, performance management, security, storage on demand, and backup and recovery.

Economics is driving many storage decisions, as businesses try to consolidate large storage infrastructures and rein in storage spending. The total external controller-based disk storage market was $3.5 billion in the first quarter of 2005, 11% higher than the year-earlier period, according to IT advisory firm Gartner. Storage vendors such as Dell, EMC, IBM, and Network Appliance all experienced double-digit growth.Demand Drivers, bar chartOther factors driving demand for storage services include regulatory compliance, information-life-cycle management, security, and storage on demand. In a survey of storage professionals that Gartner conducted in August, 69% cite compliance as the No. 1 driver, followed by information-life-cycle management (56%), security (44%), and storage on demand (31%).

Storage on demand has emerged as a growth area. Several of the survey respondents report that 70% of the storage they provision in 2008 will be purchased on a usage basis, and outsourcers are adding storage-on-demand services. These utilities are being built around tiers of storage for backup and primary disk storage so different tiers can be assigned based on the business value of the data.

Pay Per Use
Many service providers have entered the market. MCI, which is being acquired by Verizon Communications Inc., in September launched Utility Storage Service, a pay-as-you-go service model, at the heart of which is a Client Central portal where customers can view attached servers, track volumes, monitor utilization, and add, move, and delete storage capacity. "The service allows customers to plug into a shared storage fabric on a per-gigabyte, per-month basis," says Rick Dyer, director of product management at MCI's enterprise hosting services.

The MCI service alerts customers when their capacity threshold is reached, letting them request additional storage. MCI also provides back-end capacity-storage management and planning, including storage area network discovery and path management, performance and event management, and file-system-level storage-resource management.

Professional storage services can be critical in linking storage infrastructure decisions to business requirements. HIP Health Plan of New York, the largest HMO in the New York area, contracted with GlassHouse Technologies Inc. to create a road map for storage that would let it deal with myriad regulatory issues, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. "GlassHouse conducted a thorough analysis of our storage needs and developed an architectural blueprint," says Tom Ko, HIP's director of data-center operations.In addition to helping HIP meet regulatory mandates, the infrastructure has enabled it to use storage as a business differentiator, by, for example, being able to call up an image in response to a customer query. "HIP was keen on having a storage infrastructure they could expand," says Steven Foskett, GlassHouse's director of strategic services. "By keeping more of their data online, they're able to not only meet regulations but also satisfy customers."

Another GlassHouse customer, Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, developed a tiered storage architecture, with tier one consisting of EMC arrays, tier two Network Appliance devices, and tier three EMC's Centera. "We like to keep things simple," says David Kaercher, VP of infrastructure. "Previous companies I've worked for have had islands of SANs. Here we just have a single enterprise storage environment."It also helped Allianz expand storage economically. From a previous environment of 70 to 80 terabytes of direct-attached storage, the insurer migrated to one where it has close to 100 terabytes of shared storage, even as the company has grown at a 15% to 20% clip. "We've maximized utilization of existing and future storage assets," Kaercher says.

As the need for availability increases, companies are looking to their backup services providers to not only offer disaster-recovery facilities but to provide managed services as well. SunGard Availability Services offers a basic backup-and-restore service based on disk-to-disk-to-tape, on up to complete hot-site and failover capabilities with mirrored servers and disks, and vaulting solutions for storing archived data off site. "Customers want systems that blend disaster recovery and managed services," says Lenny Monsour, SunGard's director of product management.

Regulatory Requirements
One SunGard customer, PSS/ World Medical Inc., relocated its data-center operations from Jackson, Miss., to SunGard's Philadelphia center when Hurricane Katrina struck. "We do high availability with SunGard," says Brian Finley, chief technology officer of PSS/ World Medical. "We made Philadelphia our production site and relocated 35 call-center workers to SunGard's Atlanta facility."

PSS/World Medical maintains a full backup copy of data in Philadelphia and takes a snapshot once a day of its Oracle production database. "We take the snapshot at 2 a.m., with a recovery objective of 20 minutes." For regulatory purposes, PSS/World Medical is considering archiving data on nearline media, which is used to move data online quickly. To comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, it's required to retain seven years of sales-tax history. "We're looking at keeping all of that data online," Finley says. "We've talked to EMC and are looking at software-replication products."For companies that need nearly instant recovery of all data, a new approach called "continuous data protection" is designed to instantly copy and back up all changes to data. The idea is to record every change to every data element--be it a Word document, a database entry, or an E-mail--thereby eliminating the risk of lost data.

The technology is offered by large systems vendors such as IBM and EMC, as well as niche providers such as Asempra Technologies, Revivio, and TimeSpring Software. It will appeal to financial-services and health-care companies under pressure to guarantee against lost data, while maintaining a high degree of application availability. For most companies, however, daily or hourly backups are sufficient.

Some companies are turning to storage-management systems to help them understand how much storage is being used for what apps. Bocada Inc. offers software that aggregates and analyzes information generated by systems-management software such as IBM's Tivoli and Hewlett-Packard's OpenView to give administrators greater insight into how their storage systems are being used. It helps managers whose companies are seeking to consolidate data centers and platforms.

"Administrators have got to provide greater visibility into their operations at the same time they're having to consolidate services and get costs down," Bocada CEO Mark Silverman says. "They need information to plan, strategize, and make decisions."

Cutting The Tape
Virtual tape operations, which use disk arrays to emulate tape, are rapidly coming to the forefront as companies seek to reduce costly and time-consuming tape operations. Grange Insurance Group implemented a virtual tape system that saved it $1,000 a month in shipping costs alone--costs that were incurred transporting tapes 230 miles from its main data center in Seattle to its backup site in Spokane, Wash.The system uses a device that attaches to Grange's mainframe system that runs its core business applications. The device, Mainframe Appliance for Storage from Bus-Tech Inc., emulates an IBM 3490 tape unit so perfectly that only a few minor changes to the mainframe code were required.

In the Grange configuration, each data center has a MAS unit attached to a mainframe via a 17-Mbyte-per-second channel. The data is replicated to a Dell-based RAID 1-terabyte storage array and from there is replicated to Spokane. All tape-based operations continue to function exactly as before but without tape. Instead, data storage and retrieval use fast, error-protected disk storage.

Going to virtual tape has cut the amount of time required to do tape backups, freeing up time for nightly batch processing. "By elimination of physical tape handling, we can run more batch jobs over the weekend," says Dale Caldwell, Grange's systems programmer.

For business-technology managers, the challenge is to find a storage-service provider that's able to link its services to a customer's business objectives. Business-related service-level agreements should be crafted in terms of the stockholder's priorities, not tech-related terms, which have little business value, Gartner says. In regulatory compliance, businesses are likely to turn to providers that are first to market with services for assessment, architecture designs, implementations, and managed compliance services.

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