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Benefits of the utility model

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Implementing a utility storage environment can reap many operational rewards. The following list of benefits comes from a report, "Shining the Light on Utility Computing--A Business Perspective," authored by Michael Fisch and published in The Clipper Group Explorer:

Delivers IT as a service, not as a box or fixed asset
Provides the enterprise with the right services, in the right amounts, at the right time
Optimizes the reliability, performance and total cost of ownership of IT resources
Responds quickly to support changing business requirements
Raises accountability for responsible consumption and reliable service delivery

Source: The Clipper Group Inc.
Flip a switch and get more or less storage, and only pay for what you actually use. That's the picture the term "utility storage" conjures--the idea that IT resources can be turned on and off to coincide with fluctuating needs just as we control the flow of electricity, water or gas into our homes and offices.

The benefits are as obvious as they are tempting: no more overbuying, overconfiguring or overallocating. As Jim Geis, director of system solutions and services at Forsythe Technology, a Skokie, IL, technology consulting firm puts it: A storage utility is simply "storage that is easily provisioned, reallocated, flexible and retrievable for any platform at any time for any purpose."

For Earl Patkowski, managing consultant in Bell Canada's infrastructure and operations group, the benefits of utility storage are real: "We only pay for what we really need," says Patkowski.

Defining terms
Put the hype aside and there are some very practical notions underlying the concept of utility storage, and some real products and services that are available now. Of course, it all depends on how utility computing is defined. There are three basic models of utility storage (other widely used monikers include: "capacity on demand," "pay per use" and "pay as you go"). They are:

  1. On demand. Vendors install storage systems configured with more capacity than is needed; users "turn on" additional capacity as required and are billed for the additional usage.
  2. Internal utility. In this scenario, an IT department pools its storage resources and adds the components necessary to internally administer the storage as an on-demand service to the company's business units.
  3. Off site. Storage service providers (SSPs) provide off-site storage facilities, typically based on a lease arrangement with SLAs that guarantee QoS. Many companies use SSPs for off-site backup; increasingly, SSPs are also being used to replace or augment onsite data storage.
Further clouding the meaning of utility computing is that it's an umbrella expression that refers to the entire computing environment, including servers, network and storage. However, a utility storage system can be implemented without also pooling servers and network components. For many companies, creating a storage utility may be the most logical first step toward implementing a utility computing environment. "Storage is probably the most easily interchangeable part of utility computing," says Forsythe's Geis.

Today, the technologies exist to virtualize servers and storage independently, says Eric Stouffer, program director for on-demand solutions at IBM Tivoli. IBM advises some of its customers "to implement one or the other first ... not try to tackle the whole thing all at once," Stouffer says.

Special sauce
"Business users have become extremely frustrated by the cost of storage services," says David Scott, CEO of 3PAR, Fremont, CA. He points out that improving disk usage can reduce capital expenditures, while using automation to eliminate administrative tasks will further cut storage expenses. Meeting service level expectations and commitments is also vital to the success of a storage utility environment, says Scott.

Being able to adjust service levels is a key concern for Epsilon, a marketing services provider based in Wakefield, MA. The company is moving toward a utility storage model to deal with frequent storage capacity fluctuations based on project requirements. "Our business changes all the time," says technical director John Gaythorpe. "People want a terabyte here, a terabyte there and tomorrow they don't want it."

The meanings of utility storage and the motivations for pursuing it may vary, but there is consensus on the key--or most desirable--characteristics that contribute to a utility environment. They are:

  • Common management tools
  • Virtualization
  • Policy-based allocation
  • Automated provisioning
  • Modularity
  • Scalability
  • Data availability and mobility
Because of interoperability issues, legacy storage gear and a basic mistrust of automated provisioning, most current utility storage solutions don't address all of the above elements. Today, many storage products offer volume management, virtualization and policy-based automated provisioning, but that's a far cry from the flip-the-storage-switch model.

However, some companies are starting to gingerly test the utility computing waters. Those pioneers will typically take a staged approach to creating their storage utilities. Each of the storage utility functions is likely to be implemented incrementally, perhaps on a project basis or as an upgrade to a current storage configuration.

This was first published in June 2004

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