Hot Spots: Remote control

Letting remote and branch offices deal with storage security on their own is courting disaster.

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Late in June when most of us were thinking about fireworks, barbeques and water sports, Cisco Systems Inc. made an interesting acquisition. The networking giant picked up Actona Technologies Inc. of Los Gatos, CA, a developer of wide area file-transfer software, for approximately $82 million. The storage buzz volume immediately increased, as everyone wanted to understand what Cisco was up to. Did this acquisition mean that Cisco was...

jumping into storage with both feet?

Not quite. Cisco did this deal because it viewed Actona's technology as a key piece of its Full-Service Branch (FSB) strategy. FSB tightly links a series of branch office products and services back to the enterprise. Actona's ActaStor is distributed file service software that integrates remote file shares with centralized data repositories. The product gives remote and branch office users the performance and feel of local access to file data. In other words, the Cisco/Actona marriage can provide companies with centralized control of remote offices for storage capacity, file transfer and backup services--a pretty compelling package.

Why focus on the branch office? After all, the big bucks are in the data center, right? Yes, data center budgets can be in the multimillion dollar range, but remote office storage is a burgeoning market. Remote offices feature:

  • Many distributed locations. While data centers need a lot of storage in a central location, remote offices need relatively little storage in many locations. It's not the least bit unusual for large companies to have dozens of remote offices to service.
  • Limited skills. Data centers have brainiac storage guys who are up on the latest technologies, vendors and methodologies. Large remote offices may have a few IT generalists responsible for telecommunications, storage and desktop support, but smaller remote offices may not have any IT expertise at all. At those offices, storage tasks may end up in the job description of an IT-challenged business administrator.
  • Lack of processes. Data center operations tend to be pretty organized and diligent. Remote office IT processes are often the exact opposite. Unskilled workers hack their way through storage administration, which is often the lowest priority on their to-do lists.

For years, these problems were recognized, but mostly ignored. With other high-priority storage issues at hand, companies invested in the data center while remote offices were nearly ignored.

But this situation is changing for several reasons. As in the data center, data growth at remote offices continues at a 50% to 100% per year rate. Inexperienced remote administrators just can't keep up with that kind of demand. In addition, regulations such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley mandate data protection and security with no regard for the physical location of the data. These business and regulatory issues make it essential to address remote office storage services.

Get the picture now? Cisco's focus here is the tip of the iceberg. Startups and established vendors will develop remote office bundles of their own soon. Given the expected storage operations and data protection benefits, storage managers will start investigating remote office storage products as soon as they are available. But before proceeding, here are 10 things to consider during your planning process:

  1. Include high-availability features for remote office storage products. Centralizing storage services makes sense from an operational perspective, but remember that technical problems could compromise remote office storage access. Storage cost savings won't matter much if remote employees can't get their data. To alleviate this risk, it's important that remote office products feature built-in redundant components and RAID disk. Remember to architect redundant network paths as well.
  2. Don't forget about business-continuity planning. Sometimes even high-availability solutions will fail. Part of the remote office storage strategy should be a detailed disaster-recovery plan that minimizes any disruptions. To manage costs here, ask your vendors to help you out by putting you in touch with customers who have already cleared this hurdle. These companies can offer advice on remote office business-continuity best practices and mistakes to avoid along the way.
  3. Think beyond storage. Storage isn't the only area where remote office technology is lacking. Many remote offices have low-end Ethernet switches and minimal security protection as well. Vendors such as Cisco and Symantec Corp. will develop or integrate remote office bundles that encompass all three areas. These multifunction systems will provide broader functionality and operational benefits than a storage-only product, so it's important to do ample needs assessments and product research before settling on a remote office plan.
  4. Put together a cross-functional project team. When the stakes are high, contentious turf battles shouldn't derail an otherwise successful project. This means that remote office storage solutions absolutely require a combined effort between the networking and storage team. Cooperation will help with budget and architectural planning. For example, there may be an enterprise VoIP initiative that already impacts the network and remote offices. Storage may be able to piggyback on an initiative such as that.
  5. Make sure that management is a major consideration. Every vendor will tell you that they can provide centralized management of distributed equipment. Consider this a door opener only. Does the vendor support management standards such as SMI-S and CIM? Can its management tools integrate easily into network and storage management platforms? Does the management platform provide for passive monitoring or active management? Can it support XML as a common language? Management is often given short shrift by equipment vendors, so you need to make sure that isn't the case with the equipment you choose.
  6. Consider service and support options. Once a technology is distributed over geographic distances, service and support can quickly become a nightmare, introducing multiple carriers, time zones and languages into the mix. Test your vendors' support capabilities from multiple locations at various times. Ask for references from a range of geographies and countries. Find out where spare parts are kept and how quickly you can access them when necessary.
  7. Think through operations. If you implement a remote solution, which IT people get to touch the box and what rights will they have? This is an important consideration, as networking and storage people will certainly need access for monitoring and maintenance. Be sure to define operational procedures and metrics in advance and create a strong communication and reporting channel.
  8. Plan for future upgrades upfront. Remember that storage capacity and bandwidth requirements will continue to grow, so any remote storage device will need a lot of headroom flexibility. Look for low-end products with room for port and drive expansion.
  9. Be open-minded about vendors. When products combine storage, networking and security, there's bound to be a lot of competition from vendors that the storage team is familiar with. Storage teams shouldn't default to their favorite vendors without looking around to see if there are other, more feature-rich alternatives. Again, this is a good place to caucus the cross-functional team to weigh all options.
  10. Mind the business. This is the most important consideration! Any remote office solution must be additive to the company and not disrupt existing business processes. Adhering to this rule will make the remote office storage project a win-win for IT and the business.

Not a remote possibility 
If you work at a large, geographically dispersed company, it's inevitable that you'll be asked to implement a product that addresses the storage needs of remote offices. Careful planning from the start and consideration of business and organizational needs will give your ultimate solution the best chance for success.

This was first published in October 2004

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