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Data means a lot to a company like toronto-based insurers Canada Life. So much, in fact, that the IT department is in the process of combining its various storage management experts into a centralized business unit, to be called the Storage Competency Center (SCC).

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Consolidation's many benefits
Bob Passmore, storage area research director with Gartner Research,often talks to storage administrators a lot about their work habits. In many cases, he says, storage administrators don't even have a realistic idea of how much of a burden management has become.

In one survey, system administrators were asked how much of their time was spent managing storage. Most respondents estimated it consumed between 15% to 20% of their average workday. Following those same people around for a week revealed the true figure is closer to 60%.

This disparity reinforces the strength of what Passmore sees as three key arguments in support of centralized data management, even though the process can potentially create a political quagmire of conflicting interests. Once those interests are effectively managed, however, likely benefits include:

Increasing storage management productivity. Gartner surveys have shown that storage centralization. By eliminating the need for storage administrators to run around so much - increases the amount of data they can manage by between three and 50 times. That's a major improvement that promises cost savings and efficiency improvements, and may be enough alone to justify the push for centralization.

Improving the overall quality of storage management. Efforts to provide ample mainframe and open systems storage have often resulted in widely distributed network-attached storage (NAS). Centralize responsibility for that storage, and technical consolidation is an inevitable byproduct. This improves overall storage quality by providing a single, homogeneous storage infrastructure. Introduction of SANs can be of major benefit here, since they force companies to reconsider centralized storage processes from the ground up.

Improving backup and restore processes. Centralizing data relieves the headaches caused by managing distributed storage, reducing firefighting and allowing improved archiving and backup/recovery procedures through utilization of better storage management software.

Better visibility of actual storage costs. Where storage has long been seen as an unquantifiable but omnipresent part of the IT budget, breaking it into its own business unit will completely change the way storage is perceived across the company. Today's sophisticated software tools give storage groups a better view of storage usage, enabling chargeback schemes that pass on the newly realized cost of storage management back to its users.

"The biggest challenge to the storage administrator is where to get the software tools to make the job easier," says Passmore. "When you have smart, knowledgeable administrative tools, you can get the job done."
It's largely a semantic change, since the team of four storage engineers - out of a total IT team of around 100 - already work closely together. But by forging its own identity within the organization, the team hopes to bridge the philosophical gaps between mainframe and Unix engineers, and to raise the company's overall awareness of the complex issues involved in administering the company's 20TB of online storage.

The change is a direct result of the growing importance of data-driven business systems within the 155-year-old company, which is one of North America's 30 largest insurers, maintaining data on over 10 million customers in Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Ireland. By setting down the ground rules for storage, says Storage Services technical lead Paul Ludzki, storage administrators hope the creation of the SCC will facilitate effective forward planning.

"We've never codified what the service levels and expectations [for storage] ought to be, or made declarations of what levels we can really satisfy," says Ludzki, who says he often has to engage business units to correct business plans for new applications that neglect such basic issues as backup.

"As storage represents a greater proportion of the overall IT infrastructure cost," he says, "there's a greater incentive on the side of our financial management groups to make sure that we're budgeting for it correctly and charging accurately against the business systems that are using it. Growth used to be more predictable and it wasn't hard to stay ahead of the need, but now it comes in big chunks and a bigger hurry. This will establish some service levels that we can promise and deliver."

Separating storage
The trend to formalize storage management within discrete groups has gradually taken hold in recent years, as the ever-growing demands of e-business have put increasing pressure on storage administrators who used to buy storage simply by adding up what they'd need and doubling that number.

With CRM, sales force automation, data warehousing and other enterprise systems continuing to blossom, storage purchases are now expanding at a breakneck pace. Research firm Gartner, Stamford, CT, says most companies expect their storage capacity to double every year, with highly data-intensive businesses seeing the demand double every quarter.

The real challenge comes in managing all that additional storage. Suddenly adding hundreds of gigabytes of new storage can quickly become a management nightmare - particularly if that storage is added to systems outside the immediate jurisdiction of internal storage management groups.

Business managers may commission new storage investments for departmental applications without giving due consideration to backup, redundancy and other relevant strategies; unchecked finger-pointing and general chaos can easily result if something goes wrong. By drawing a line in the sand, storage groups can consolidate their resources and - in theory at least - finally force individual business units to do things their way.

"Having everyone responsible [for storage] in one group facilitates that ease of communication and willingness to work together," says Debbie Lemieux, storage administrator with L.L. Bean in Freeport, ME. L.L. Bean has 3.7TB of mirrored direct-attached storage (DAS) administered through a three-person enterprise storage group that Lemieux says has helped raise the profile of storage within the organization.

"Over the past couple of years, we've had to put ourselves in front of [other] organizations by providing presentations about technological directions, day-to-day challenges and the benefits they would realize by supporting the changes we're trying to get support for," she says. "The response has been very positive, and there's a lot more knowledge and awareness [among business units] of the time and resources that it takes to maintain the project requests that come down the pipe."

Simply declaring their solidarity and distributing storage policy manuals isn't enough by itself, however. Storage groups may like to believe such a move will let them formalize relationships that have previously been gauged by their ability to keep up with the demands of unchecked application development across the company. But not every environment is as amenable to change as that at L.L. Bean. Unless structural change is managed effectively, it can be a recipe for disaster when other business units - and even other members of the IT team - see things much differently.

That means storage groups must not only formalize storage policies and sign SLAs delineating their responsibilities, but they must also work to raise the profile of the newly independent unit by educating technical and business executives about the real state of storage within the company, and the underlying complexities that come with managing ever-growing volumes of data.

Such complexities are often lost even on people who should know better, such as database administrators and developers. "Ten years ago, the majority of them had a good sense of storage, but the basic architecture of storage has changed two or three times since then," says Michael Rogers, manager of technical support architecture at financial clearinghouse TSYS, in Columbus, GA. "Now we're seeing that they're basically looking for capacity and allowing storage administrators to make recommendations."

TSYS maintains 70TB of online storage and processes over six billion financial transactions, pertaining to 229 million accounts, on behalf of blue chip financial services clients every year. Its storage administration team consists of eight DAS experts and five tape managers. Continual improvement has refined storage processes and procedures to the point where the team can manage 10TB per person, with business units held to a 90-day lead time and quarterly storage reviews keeping supply ahead of demand.

This level of success has required eternal vigilance and a lot of pressing the flesh, Rogers warns - something that's not always easy when eight storage administrators are servicing more than 5,500 employees. Still, he says, taking the right approach can help build the right culture throughout even recalcitrant business units.

"When we approach the user community with the concept that we're there to make their lives easier, it always seems to be better received," Rogers says. "You're asking them to change their processes, and if you come down with a heavy-handed approach, it's not going to be well received. You'll spend more time fighting political battles than if you point out that you're all in it together."

This was first published in August 2002

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