Who's running the storage shop?

Companies that set up a storage management group with well-defined job duties can eliminate redundancy and get more bang for their buck.

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"Absolutely," says Angelo Privetera, when asked if his storage management group has helped save his company money. "We're able to bill it back, and reduce the cost by not adding additional staff," explains Privetera, vice president and director of information and technologies for HDR Inc., an architectural and engineering consulting firm based in Omaha, NE.

Companies like HDR that have established a formal storage management structure with specific responsibilities have reaped rewards. Centralizing storage management helps eliminate redundancies, allows for consistent maintenance and monitoring of storage and applies the talents of personnel more efficiently--all of which contribute to the company's bottom line.

Before creating a formal storage management function, a number of questions need answers:

  • How many storage specialists are needed?
  • What are the job responsibilities and required skills?
  • Should the storage personnel comprise a new, separate entity, or remain in their current positions with newly defined responsibilities?
  • How will the storage personnel interact with others such as DBAs and system and network admins?
Redefining roles and shifting responsibilities may stir up controversy. The best antidote to resistance is information--be prepared to describe the benefits of specialization for the organization and personnel affected by the changes. "The advantage of specialization is people can focus their total attention on a subject--and by doing that, they can help devise policies and procedures that in the long run are going to be more cost-effective," says David Hill, VP of storage research at the Aberdeen Group.

Who needs dedicated storage management?
Nearly all of the Fortune 500 companies, with their enormous data storage requirements, have formal storage groups within their IT structures. But even small companies may need to consider a storage group. "Almost universally, the key metric is the number of managed, usable gigabytes--so really the size of the company is essentially meaningless," says Mike Drapeau, president of The Drapeau Group, a storage consulting firm in Alpharetta, GA.

Company size and the amount of stored data aren't the only factors, though. The value of data to a company may be a more compelling reason to formalize storage management. Bob Zimmerman, a principal analyst at Forrester, notes that it's more likely to find formalized storage management in organizations "where the integrity of the data tends to be an overwhelming driver."

What should a storage team do?
The next step is to define specific responsibilities and activities. The basic responsibility of a storage management team--regardless of team size--is to ensure the daily operations of the storage network. This includes, at a minimum:

  • Backup and recovery
  • Maintaining the storage area network (SAN) fabric and arrays
  • Implementing new devices
  • Performance monitoring
  • Capacity monitoring and load balancing
  • Provisioning
For some teams, the roles have expanded to include planning, forecasting and some budgetary duties, including capacity planning, making recommendations and researching and evaluating new technologies and products.

The degree that storage personnel are involved in these responsibilities vary, and is related more to reporting structures and the organization of companies' IT groups than to the size of the storage team. For example, Bruce Hall, a senior storage architect at a major financial services and health care company, says that while the company has a storage staff of approximately 15 people, storage capacity planning is handled by a group that works with the business units to develop capacity plans for all computing systems. Larger companies like Hall's enjoy the advantages of having proportionally large storage staffs, where the degree of specialization is much greater than in modestly sized groups.

The bigger shops also tend to be better equipped with higher-end management tools. Anders Lofgren and Jim Geronaitis, VPs in Computer Associates' BrightStor Storage Management Group, see larger companies leveraging the efficiencies gained by using tools such as storage resource management (SRM) and SAN management applications so that they can now begin to look more closely at the value that's placed on the company's data, especially in light of regulatory requirements. They also note that with greater specialization, companies are focusing more on automation to help deal with growing storage capacities. Aided by these sophisticated applications, Drapeau says that these teams can be less reactive and get more deeply involved in advanced processes such as:

  • Proactive monitoring
  • Developing more advanced diagnostic techniques
  • Automating restore operations
  • Advanced capacity planning
  • Conducting storage architecture reviews
  • Using topology renderings to determine connectivity issues and capabilities
Budgeting responsibilities vary, too, but not based on the size of the storage group. The degree to which the storage team is involved in setting or approving budgets hinges on the corporate management level to which it reports. As vice president and director of information and technologies for HDR, Privetera makes budgeting decisions related to requests from business units; for enterprise-wide storage systems expenditures, Privetera submits his proposed storage budgets directly to the company's CEO and CFO.

Even when its not responsible for making the final decisions on budget expenditures, a storage team typically plays an advisory role in determining budgets. This may involve analyzing requests from business units, assessing the costs and making recommendations.

How many specialists are needed?
There's no clear-cut formula for determining the "right" number of storage specialists. Factors to consider include:

  • Number of supported applications (see "Building your storage management group")
  • Number and nature of business units being supported
  • Amount of storage maintained
  • Physical complexity of the storage setup
  • Geographic issues
  • Special circumstances such as regulatory compliance
For Best Buy Canada, a $1.6 billion subsidiary of the Minneapolis, MN-based retail electronics giant, a single dedicated specialist is sufficient to manage an installation of approximately 80TB. Damian Chung, enterprise storage analyst for Best Buy Canada, gets occasional part-time help from two or three other technicians, but Chung says, "I'm the only person that has a storage-specific title." Chung assumed storage responsibilities approximately two years ago; the company has Unix, Windows and Linux servers, but the Unix servers are the primary users of the SAN.

Brian Perlstein is a senior technical consultant for Oakwood Healthcare, a Dearborn, MI, organization that manages hospitals and health care centers. Oakwood decided to dedicate personnel to storage administration when it installed its first SAN more than three years ago to accommodate its PeopleSoft system. As with other medical facilities, HIPAA-related regulatory compliance and medical imaging are key areas of concern. Perlstein says that the hospital has a good handle on its HIPAA requirements, and is preparing to bring the Picture Archiving and Communication System (PACS) online--which he expects will require another 10TB of storage. Despite those potentially daunting requirements, Oakwood's 10TB of SAN-based data is managed effectively by Perlstein and only two other specialists who work on storage on a part-time basis. "We're pretty smooth running. We have very good communication in our organization," he says.

Similarly, Privetera's team of three storage specialists at HDR is modestly sized, considering the 50TB of data they're managing. It's a veteran group, formed about four or five years ago, and is charged with managing storage accessed by more than 200 servers. HDR has more than 80 remote locations, but the storage team is not yet involved with those facilities. "We focus more on enterprise storage as opposed to all of the office locations," Privetera explains. HDR's storage staff manages corporate data, such as corporate databases and Exchange.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bruce Hall is one of about 15 specialists who, on a part- or full-time basis, manage their company's 100TB-plus storage resources for Unix, Windows and mainframe platforms. The need for a relatively large, cross-functional storage team is related to the company's involvement in two lines of business that are data-intensive and highly regulated--finance and health services. "Before we were siloed--whether it was midrange Wintel or Unix systems--each division that managed those platforms had their own architecture, engineering and day-to-day admin teams," says Hall. The storage environment is now centralized on an enterprise level, with the full-time storage specialists concentrating on operations and the part-time participants involved with architectural decisions.

Defining storage jobs
The road to an effective storage management team will probably pass through the HR office. In most companies, once the specific skill sets required for storage personnel have been defined, those requirements have to be translated into job descriptions. Some points to keep in mind:
New jobs take time. Working with the human resources organization to redefine jobs can be time-consuming.
Be specific. While it's fine to use existing job descriptions for similar positions as templates, the descriptions for storage positions should relate to specific storage activities.
Consider interactions. In addition to defining the specific responsibilities of each new job, Mike Drapeau, president of The Drapeau Group, a storage consulting firm, suggests describing how those jobs relate to and integrate with the overall environment.
Plan for career development. Develop future positions that provide a career development path for current storage professionals.
Expect some resistance. Selling entirely new job descriptions to prospective storage group members may not be easy. An employee who previously had some part-time storage responsibilities may feel that the scope of his job has narrowed and his skills are going to be wasted as a result of the redefined job description.

Seeking storage pros
Most companies don't have to look far to find the appropriate people to assume storage management responsibilities. In many cases, the personnel assigned to the storage team were already on staff, had some storage responsibilities and were involved to some degree in the storage centralization project.

Although most companies segregated their networking disciplines from other IT areas some time ago, servers and storage often remain paired as an IT resource and tucked into the operations arm of the IT organization. As a result, operations--including systems administration--are typically the largest contributors of personnel for storage management groups.

Best Buy Canada's Chung followed a fairly typical route to his current role as an enterprise storage analyst. Chung was originally assigned to a Unix group where one of his duties was to manage storage--so it was a short stretch for him to take on storage as a full-time responsibility. "What has happened here is [storage management] became part of the Unix group, since the Unix systems are the primary servers that utilize the SAN."

There may be some preconceptions to overcome, however, when building a storage management team. Aberdeen's Hill points out that "storage was never viewed as glamorous, so people didn't want to be known as the backup person." But many IT professionals are convinced that concentrating on storage can be a good--and technically challenging--career move, as they see their companies sinking significant resources into storage networking.

The ideal storage group should include people with skills from other parts of the IT organization. If it's not possible to formally add these people to the team, communications links should be established with the appropriate IT departments to ensure future cooperation.

Consultant Mike Drapeau advocates adding DBAs to a storage management team. Says Drapeau: "DBAs can ensure that storage planning matches data planning," adding that DBAs in a storage group may also provide "a backdoor way to speak coherently and effectively to the lines of business."

Redefining jobs and responsibilities will require a fair amount of planning and research. (See "Defining storage jobs"). Along with new job definitions and new processes, don't be surprised to encounter some associated costs as well. "It's going to create a new person with a new title with a new expectation of salary and perks and all that," says Drapeau. The additional expenditures should be considered developmental costs that are part and parcel to establishing an effective storage operation. "It's not perceived as a cost-saving measure," says Drapeau. "It's perceived as a way to be more responsive."

Working with others
Routinely, storage groups need to work with other IT disciplines, including network, systems and database management groups. The storage team's responsibilities inevitably overlap with other groups, with the potential for turf battles and contention to develop. Two of the most widely related examples are configuring HBAs and allocating LUNs and disk volumes for databases. These activities cross disciplinary boundaries, blurring the jurisdictional lines between server and storage or database and storage groups. While some head-butting is inevitable, anticipating these conflicts and planning for them can minimize disruptions.

These issues can be addressed by incorporating the related disciplines in the storage group, but for most companies that's probably not a practical option. However, setting up a combination of formal and informal procedures is a practical and effective measure that can help defuse conflicts. Bruce Hall assembled a cross-discipline team of more than 40 staff members when his company was planning its storage network. As a result, the storage group now enjoys an effective level of cooperation with other IT factions, and can amicably negotiate specific responsibilities when a project crosses functional lines.

At Oakwood Healthcare, Brian Perlstein says good communications paid off, with storage personnel working closely with server admins and DBAs to help them understand the operation and benefits of the storage network. Oakwood also uses an online request form as part of its capacity allocation process, which helps ensure smooth relations with other application groups.

In some companies, the storage team and the groups that it frequently interacts with are parallel members of an organization within IT. Best Buy Canada's Chung says operating shoulder-to-shoulder in that arrangement encourages cooperation. "If a database is having performance issues, we manage to work together to try to determine the cause."

But among even the most informal environments, one area almost always gets the formal treatment: change requests. For requests that may require significant effort or have a measurable effect on storage operations, such as attaching a new server to the SAN, formal procedures and documentation requirements are frequently in place.

Eye on the future
As storage management groups approach a level of maturity--and the tools they use mature as well--they will undoubtedly find effective ways to deal with the issues that currently confront them. But there will be little time to rest on one's laurels as emerging technologies will make new demands and require new technical expertise.

According to industry analysts, consultants and other experts, the following impending technologies are likely to pose significant challenges and have profound effects on storage organizations:
Information life cycle management (ILM) promises to have a dramatic effect on storage operations by increasing the complexity of managing infrastructure; however, the effort to implement ILM will have its rewards, with improved operations and storage performance.
IP storage will require closer interaction with corporate network support groups to allow storage groups to tap into existing expertise and make use of IP-based network management tools.
Disk-to-disk backup will alter the operational responsibilities of storage groups and require them to learn new tools. But the benefits of disk-to-disk will eventually outweigh the new demands and provide new efficiencies by eliminating tape for daily backups, providing significantly faster data recovery and allowing the use of more automated backup tools.

Reporting structure
With the exception of some Fortune 500 companies, most companies' storage management teams are considered a functional group within IT, reporting either directly to the head of the IT group or to the operations manager. It's rare that the storage lead reports to someone with a C-level title such as the CTO or CIO.

Because many of the job skills and responsibilities associated with managing storage are relatively similar to traditional system administration roles, the storage group will likewise report into operations or technical support groups. Forrester's Zimmerman thinks this arrangement is appropriate: "It's the blocking and tackling that you're trying to get done more efficiently."

Obstacles to organization
Creating a storage organization is likely to involve more than just defining new roles and responsibilities. In many cases, building the team will also require overcoming cultural or attitudinal obstacles--most are related to how work was performed and how responsibilities were allocated before networked storage was implemented.

And it may take some effort to get business unit buy- in, especially since they may have to pay more for the storage they use. Oakwood's Perlstein says when it comes to dealing with business users' perceptions of what data storage should cost, "It's more the technology and what's behind the SAN that they don't understand, and that's a big challenge to explain to them."

Next steps
A logical outgrowth of dedicated storage management is the ability to accurately charge back storage expenses to the company's lines of business. But this management feature is still in its early stages in most companies. Some companies, like Oakwood Healthcare, have taken initial steps by charging back storage services for specific projects, while assuming the costs of infrastructure components such as e-mail storage as overhead. HDR has also instituted charge backs on a project basis which has allowed its business units to pass those costs along to clients.

While the ability to charge back and establish SLAs may not be the holy grail, most companies see the potential benefits. "A key long-term goal of any storage management organization is the ability to attribute their invested capital and invested staff across the provisioned landscape," says Mike Drapeau, "and right now very few companies are doing this."

Poised for growth
Any company that has established a dedicated storage group--big or small--is clearly on the right track. The amount of data that needs to be stored and retained--regardless of a company's business--is growing at an astonishing rate. And the familiar litany of regulation, security and accountability will only contribute to the growth. (See "Eye on the future")

The importance of having well-defined roles and emphasizing specialization can't be minimized. The organizational efficiencies translate easily into cost savings that, in many cases, come fairly early on in the process.

This was first published in May 2004

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