The older I get, the more philosophical my New Year's resolutions become. I think about how I can be a better human being in the abstract, rather than strive for concrete goals such as "lose weight" and "make more money."
The New Year presents the same opportunity for storage managers and administrators. What can this group do to meet metrics and improve its status as solid corporate citizens? I posed this question to a number of storage executives I spoke with at the end of 2004. Here's my take on what they said.
- Get storage closer to the business. I know what you're thinking--this shows up on the list every year. But there are several reasons why it's more pressing than ever. For one, there are some pending compliance deadlines looming around Sarbanes-Oxley and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Compliance processes may be handled by other groups in the enterprise, so it's important for the storage team to reach out and see how it can help. Are there access control policies that need to be written? New reports to be created? Is there a special language to learn? These questions may seem obvious, but could be overlooked in the daily grind. One storage manager put it this way: "I know I have some work to do with compliance and all, but I'm waiting for the legal guys to start screaming before I pay attention." A New Year's resolution to become more involved in the compliance process will help to avoid a stressful 11th-hour effort and move the business along.
- Reconnect with strategic business initiatives. Most companies go through rigorous planning activities early in the fourth quarter, among other distractions such as year-end sales and holiday parties. (There's that eating and drinking again.) Months later, when the New Year arrives, everyone is too busy to review the planning assumptions to make sure they're still accurate.
"Two years ago, our planning assumed the business would be transaction-oriented, so storage purchases would be driven by performance," notes a storage manager at an e-commerce company. "The business guys did some subsequent research that found that our customers wanted much more research on our site, so we needed to think more about cheap storage capacity. Unfortunately, no one told us, so we spent the first half of this year buying the wrong stuff."
That situation isn't unusual. The business can often change in unpredictable ways that demand new storage support. Prudent storage managers should dust off budgets and review the business assumptions behind the plan. Has the company learned anything new since the fourth quarter? Have any market dynamics changed? Are there new technology developments that could drive a new direction? Once you have the answers to these questions, reconnect with line-of-business managers to see if anything has changed from their perspectives. This exercise can fine-tune storage planning and avoid costly detours.
- Establish better ways to put out fires. The good news for storage managers is that hardware continues to get cheaper and smarter. The bad news is that storage infrastructure is becoming more complex, making operations an ever-growing concern. Storage teams spend much of their time provisioning new capacity, configuring systems, backing up servers and taking on the crisis du jour. These activities are not only costly, they burn out employees and lead to high turnover. Rather than tackling these expensive areas alone, savvy storage managers will mimic the sales organization and start the year with a day-long planning session. This should be set up so that it encourages problem solving and team building, not complaining. Ask staff members to send you a list of problems and solutions before the meeting, and then spend some time looking for patterns in their responses. Use the meeting to flesh out the list and build straw man solutions, processes and metrics. If you realize a return on these activities through the year, communicate this to the team and spread praise and rewards.
Dedicating a full day to this exercise can be expensive, but it may also deliver a great ROI. A storage VP at a financial services company told me, "I always thought our group worked together so closely that a day-long planning session would be a monumental waste of time. Boy, was I wrong!" His team met in an informal setting that encouraged creative dialogue. "We found a bunch of problems we were taking for granted, shared vendor support experiences and proposed some unique ways to improve. We certainly made our money back," he added.
- Examine the information sitting on magnetic disks. Effective physicians are often said to have a "good bedside manner." This means that regardless of the ailment, they're always attentive to the person they're treating. Storage managers need this same type of dual awareness. In between keeping storage systems available and performing well, top storage executives should think about the content being stored and its business significance.
E-mail is a good area for this exercise. No matter how many times IT complains, users tend to use their e-mail folders as a substitute file system to keep their messages forever. Financial industry companies have the added requirement of having to retain copies of specific e-mail messages to comply with SEC regulation 17a-4. A typical storage response would be to keep adding cheap disk drives as a solution, but this just compounds the operational headache. A more intelligent approach is to look for specific storage applications offering automated tiering and message archiving.
Approaching storage needs on an application-by-application basis can uncover some real problems and specific solutions. "We always took a widget approach to storage--we wanted standard hardware components we could plug into every server," relates a storage manager at a manufacturing company. "Last year, we decided to look at each application to make sure the storage infrastructure met the business need. We found a number of areas where more focused solutions helped us to improve our storage utilization, cut costs and increase operational efficiency. What an eye-opener!" The company has decided to repeat the process on an annual basis.
- Become more strategic. I know this is another resolution everyone says they want to do if they could only find the time. But my discussions with storage leaders support my theory that it's a worthwhile endeavor. Storage folks should always have one eye on the business and the other on new technology. This means tracking storage solutions and keeping up with what other functional IT groups have planned. Will the company implement a service-oriented architecture any time soon? What are the plans for 10Gb Ethernet in the network? What's going on with data center automation? The answers to all of these questions have a storage corollary that should be discussed with your strategic storage vendors. This will help storage managers to plan for the future, and keep them in lockstep with the IT organization as well as the business.
In 2005, extend your New Year's resolutions to include a real reflection on professional goals, and the intersection between storage and the business. You'll not only grow as a person, but you're bound to get more toasts at next year's holiday party, too.