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Long-distance data storage

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Back in 2000, when the Internet streets were paved with gold, storage over distance seemed like a no-brainer. The thought was that distributed storage area networks (SANs) would be connected over metropolitan networks or WANs so that managing storage assets, lowering expenditures or moving data would be possible anywhere at any time. This trend was seen as such a certainty that startups such as Cereva, Scale8 and Storage Networks raised millions in venture funding. Alas, as the saying goes, "There's no such thing as a sure thing," and all of these companies have faded into Internet era has-beens.

Fast forward to 2004. While no one is doing back flips over any particular company, storage over distance is now a foregone conclusion. Why? Several reasons:

  • Storage managers see a way to lower costs and improve data protection. Storage pros realize that it doesn't make sense to keep buying--and underutilizing--storage systems for multiple data centers. Storage over distance can help firms aggregate equipment to lower operating and capital costs. New network options also provide affordable ways to replicate data from one location to another in real time. This helps decrease risk and enhance data protection in an environment where storage capacities double annually.
  • Carriers seek traffic to sell new IP services. Network service providers believe that the IP will provide the foundation of a number of

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  • network services, so they are investing heavily in new high bandwidth backbones. To fill these pipes, carriers are targeting voice traffic, virtual private networks (VPNs) and Internet connectivity, but savvy players such as Con Edison Communications, Level 3 and Sprint have already entered the storage networking space. Look for others to jump on the bandwagon soon.
  • Storage service providers have found the right recipe. While the bubble may have burst for SSPs like WorldStor, others have figured out how to make this business work. Arsenal Digital has partnered with telcos to focus on smaller shops that need help with backup, archival and regulatory compliance. ManagedStorage International (MSI) continues to focus on enterprise customers and IBM offers flexible storage options that complement its hosting and disaster recovery services.
  • Technology choices evolve. Vendors are pushing the storage-over-distance envelope on several fronts. Intelligent storage switches from Brocade, Cisco and McData will add software options that distribute bits across wider geographies. Replication products from FalconStor, NSI and Topio deliver heterogeneous products for asynchronous mirroring for the masses. Signiant provides a product for the centralized backup of distributed systems. Finally, the entire storage industry is working on information lifecycle management (ILM) products to create business-based policies that put data in perpetual motion.
Get ready for long-distance storage
With corporate demand meeting industry supply, it's time to prepare for storage over distance. Unfortunately, most companies have much work to do. ROI on storage over a long-distance project is as much about organization and operating changes as it is about new technologies. To enhance the chances for success, the storage management to-do list must:
  • Define enterprise storage issues. In the storage-over-distance model, geographically dispersed storage assets can act cooperatively to improve utilization, distribute data according to need and enhance data protection. These benefits provide a map of things to assess upfront. Are you constantly adding capacity at one data center while others remain underutilized? Is storage particularly vulnerable to security breaches in some locations? Do skilled IT personnel or unskilled administrators at remote sites do system backup? By going through this exercise, storage managers can isolate problems and begin vendor qualification.
  • Assess the process changes necessary for success. Storage over distance can unify technology, but what about processes? After all, if strict IT governance defines one data center while another maintains a more laid back attitude, storage-over-distance technology may be the least important aspect. Before any technology changes take place, it's imperative to establish standard processes for activities such as configuration and event management. Documentation across IT should also follow a standard approval and storage process as well. Once process changes are in place, storage-over-distance initiatives can be effective.
  • Determine necessary organizational changes. To avoid political brouhahas within the storage ranks, define a chain of command that puts all storage staff under a common organization. This may take some horse-trading on the part of storage managers, but if the objective is to use storage over distance to merge storage operations and information management, then the storage staff must be motivated to achieve these goals regardless of physical location.
  • Get storage and networking groups together. Storage over distance depends upon technologies such as SONET, DWDM and IP that may be foreign to storage professionals. One common mistake here is to buy dedicated storage links from carriers and cut the networking group out of the process. This may provide needed bandwidth, but it also adds costly resources and places the networking knowledge and support burden back on the storage group. Rather than this approach, it's better to build a relationship between storage and networking groups. Storage people are responsible for storage devices and applications while networking people own pipes and telcos. This division of labor can help lower costs, and keep networks up and running.
  • Identify technology requirements and options. The storage-over-distance objectives may be fairly clear, but the technology options available can be overwhelming. To avoid this overload, prioritize the problems you are trying to solve based upon their value to the business. You can then send out RFIs to leading vendors and startups. Be thorough and keep your focus on finding the right solutions.
Remember, any storage-over-distance project will take time and results will vary. To gauge progress, make sure to define some success metrics. Can you cut storage staffing requirements? Can you lower capital costs? Can you provide greater data protection?

Any changes you make will take time to settle, so you need to be realistic about schedules. Define achievable objectives on a quarterly basis, but include a "stretch" goal as well. For example, you may use storage over distance as a means to provide centralized backup services for remote offices. Based on the project plan, your quarterly goal may be to get five remote offices online per quarter. The stretch goal could raise this number to seven. Support stretch goals with some type of reward--financial compensation, new equipment, a party--whatever it takes to stimulate the team.

Storage-over-distance changes can run deep into the organization and processes. In spite of the benefits, these changes may impact corporate politics and culture--areas that are beyond the scope of most storage managers. To maximize results, make sure to enlist support from the CIO. In this case, a passionate tech executive can help drive organizational changes, champion cooperation and accelerate results.

Final word
Storage over distance is finally real, and soon you will be able to have a single view and functionality across globally distributed storage assets. Storage professionals should go gaga over the technology possibilities. Smart managers will save the technology choices until after they've prioritized business needs and unified the storage organization.

This was first published in July 2004

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