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New data storage trends: Networked information service

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Have you noticed the trend? I think it started when someone created storage networks by separating servers from storage subsystems with switches. Once spinning disks joined the network revolution, all kinds of new ideas surfaced--distributed file systems, automated archiving, multitiered storage architectures, long-distance replication and so on. The industry concept of information lifecycle management (ILM) categorizes this movement.

In the past few years, storage has undergone a radical change. It's no longer about disk drives, RAID controllers and backup. Instead, storage hardware and software is being transformed into a networked information service designed to:

  • Provide information to anyone, anywhere and at any time.
  • Secure information at rest and in flight, while also providing policy-based actions for corporate governance (strong auditing capabilities fit here as well).
  • Move information based on business rules and architectural considerations.

This may be where storage technology is headed, but it's going to be a long journey. Storage engineers have to become comfortable with the idea that devices will need to recognize each other, set up trust relationships and collaborate on tasks across geographical distances. This transition also demands a certain amount of "network agility." Storage devices will need to adapt to various transport technologies and network protocols on the fly while ensuring confidentiality, integrity

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and availability--a tall order, indeed.

These types of requirements have set up a new storage industry dynamic. Storage technologies need network integration, enterprise management and tight security, attributes that haven't been at the top of people's minds in the storage world. Storage leaders must expand their technology horizons to move forward, and these strategic moves are starting to happen. Want proof? Last year concluded with Veritas merging with Symantec and EMC acquiring System Management Arts (Smarts)--deals that shook the storage industry.

It was entertaining to listen to the companies involved present their strategies to the public. All four companies took great pains to demonstrate that these deals weren't just blue-sky visions but tactical moves for their storage businesses. But quarterly driven Wall Streeters and myopic storage managers were left scratching their heads. What does antivirus software have to do with backup and recovery? Why would storage subsystem king EMC grab a company that manages Layer 2 and 3 network devices? Have these companies lost their focus (and their minds)?

Hardly. I believe these four firms showed a lot of vision and guts. They're the first movers to act on this undeniable transition from storage widgets to a networked information service. They also realize that a networked information service changes how the game is played because of the following:

  • Availability is a "must have." Forget the historical uptime notions of "five nines" and fault-tolerance. Information must be available at all times. Therefore, if this networked information service is going to guarantee access to data across a distributed network, it had better understand network status, performance characteristics and security requirements.
  • Virtualization is everywhere. In the very near future, grid computing, Web services and IP networks will enable dynamic application connectivity and processing activities over multiple devices and across geographies in real-time. As storage devices morph into a networked information service, they'll have to be just as nimble and have the ability to move data, provision capacity or kick off a backup job in real-time.
  • Compliance changes the rules of information storage and delivery. Recent government regulations such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Sarbanes-Oxley have altered companies' laissez-faire attitude toward information protection, archival and privacy. Firms must not only store data, but protect it with secure authentication, authorization and auditing. This functionality needs to be seamless, flexible, and support business processes and initiatives.
  • Operational overhead is the killer. We all sit in front of multigigahertz PCs that will soon run 64-bit operating systems. Technology is cheap and plentiful, but managing and administering technology is more complex and costly than ever. Just think what a nightmare storage infrastructure and applications could become when distributed across global facilities. Without vast improvement, network storage management could be a showstopper. Fixing this is a recipe for survival, not just success.

In this environment, the ability to "see" the network isn't a "nice to have" item, it's a "got to have" item. As storage morphs into a networked information service, the network is simply another technology infrastructure layer that needs to be included in the management process. Protecting information throughout its lifecycle is also required. Needs may change over time, but the networked information service must have the flexibility to guard even the most sensitive and timely data while complying with regulatory processes or corporate controls.

When measured against the transition from storage devices to a networked information service, the moves of EMC, Smarts, Symantec and Veritas look pretty prophetic. But vendors have to be responsive to users' needs or they're out of business. Is there any evidence to suggest that users are moving in this direction? The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) believes the answer is "yes."

According to data from recent ESG research reports, leading-edge users are in the process of transitioning storage technologies into a networked information service. For example:

  • When it comes to moving storage intelligence into the network, 21% of those interviewed said they were already there, while another two-thirds were interested in doing so. It should also be noted that early adopters had the most storage capacity and the biggest budgets. Of those who have adopted networked-based storage intelligence, 78% said they're "very satisfied" and have also reduced costs or improved utilization. This means that leading storage consumers are already moving storage intelligence to the network to build a networked information service.
  • Users believe ILM initiatives are synonymous with networked-based storage intelligence. Fifty-six percent of early adopters had ILM projects underway and 40% said you can't have an effective ILM solution without network-based storage intelligence. Obviously, users feel ILM is a networked service and are supporting this belief with technology purchases and architectural plans.
  • Seventy-six percent of respondents said the decision to deploy an intelligent storage network solution was "to simplify the management of our storage." Here's the hook to operational overhead: Users want better management tools and consolidation of management functions. Apparently, they believe these benefits can be part of a networked information service.
  • More than half of the users surveyed in an ESG research report indicated that regulatory compliance was the most likely driver for enhanced storage security. This reinforces the idea that security must be a key feature of a networked information service.

Many enterprise companies are transitioning their storage devices into a networked information service, says ESG's data. They're doing this to support the business (e.g., compliance and ILM) and ease operations. Management and security are two of the most important criteria in this architectural conversion. Does EMC/Smarts and Veritas/Symantec make more sense now?

Get ready for the next phase
The next phase of the storage evolution will alter the industry in a profound way and make for strange bedfellows a la EMC/Smarts and Veritas/Symantec. Storage professionals need to be open-minded and solve tactical problems with an eye toward strategic storage changes over the longer term. As storage becomes a networked information service, it's crucial to make management and security the priorities in engineering plans. Demand that your storage vendors address these areas to your satisfaction.

As for storage vendors, they must look at the big picture, improve management and security functionality, and establish partnerships that can give them visibility into the network. Given this, we're likely to see many more mergers and acquisitions in 2005.

This was first published in February 2005

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