Why don't storage managers consider renting storage?

Your pack-rat neighbor uses public storage to stash belongings that don't fit in his tiny townhouse. So why don't storage managers consider renting storage?

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As we expand our use of storage area networks (SANs), we collide with the expense and slow deployment of SAN technology. What if we could simply purchase storage space, as opposed to the storage itself? With ongoing improvements in long-distance SANs, the notion of remote storage facilities for rent becomes more attractive. So, why have IT managers been slow to adopt this approach?

One way to understand is through this analogy. Imagine Public Storage Inc., a real estate investment trust that rents storage space to the public for a small fee. When you rent this kind of space, you expect certain things: secure storage, isolation from other renters' belongings and a staff that gives you good service.

Data storage renters would want similar things. Until you feel assured that your data is safe, secure and readily available, you're unlikely to consider such a utility service.

Yet doing it all on your own isn't exactly a bed of roses, either. Have you ever had a neighbor whose garage was completely full except for a path to his house's entrance (the primary storage area)? Their habits of keeping everything could continue at work, where they treat network drives like a garage ready to be filled up.

Because you can't really follow your employees home to see who will be likely offenders, you may have to resort to implementing quotas across all applications and users. But the low price of disk drives has caused quite a few shops to back away from quotas. Politically, it's easier to fix the problem with hardware.

Additionally, quotas often imply chargebacks, and this results in an accounting system aimed at penalizing offenders. But how can a service-oriented IT department charge additional money for users surpassing their SLAs when the application owners are constantly threatening to outsource their IT needs? The end result is that you continue to just throw hardware at the problem and keep asking for more money.

However, as with most capacity planning fixes done with hardware and human resources, hardware management often becomes a larger problem than the purchase price.

Renting enables HSM
Hierarchical storage management (HSM)--the ability to store data according to value and retrieval characteristics--has been an elusive power application for quite awhile. However, I've seen varying degrees of success with this solution in the field. By definition, HSM implies a tiered approach to storing data. And by tiered, we mean the farther away the data resides from instant access, the more cost-efficient the solution should be for it to provide the maximum ROI.

Having the technological ability to copy data to safe distances only solves part of the problem. The other part is more directly related to economies of scale. An HSM solution provider should be able to show you how its solution will continue to decrease capital expenditures per unit of storage as the demand for storage resources rise. It doesn't matter if you use tape, disk or both throughout the life cycle of your data, as long as the hardware's limitations fall within your requirements. If the vendor can show you how an increase in your data storage requirements will be met with a product that satisfies the economies of scale criteria, you will be more likely to solve your long-term storage requirements than by just buying more hardware.

The more-hardware approach is equivalent to your pack-rat neighbor paying $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom townhouse, accumulating enough things to fill another three-bedroom townhouse, and then paying $3,000 a month for two townhouses. Wouldn't it be better to use a public storage facility and pay $250 a month to house his duplicated furnishings?

This is the same dynamic plaguing storage facilities. The initial investment and ongoing management commitment is too steep to consider. When it comes to storing data you don't use often, it would be much better to rent space. That's even more true for mergers. Data storage utilities can serve as an excellent temporary workspace to test applications and merge data under the resulting partnership. However, during the merger, applications at the individual companies must continue this process until duplicate departments are unified under the same application.

The same logic applies to divestments, when individual companies of a once-joined corporation decide that it's time to go their separate ways. Often, one party has to go looking for a new place in a hurry. And many times, the new place may not be as accommodating in terms of space as their previous office. In these instances, public storage proves valuable because it can be easily acquired and referenced thereafter, with little cost compared to the original storage location.

Outsourcing safety guide
When evaluating potential outsourcing partners for their security worthiness, ask these questions:
  1. Will my data have its own physical fabrics?
  2. Will I be sharing name servers and other well-known services available in the SAN?
  3. Will I be sharing storage ports with applications from other organizations?
  4. What kind of zoning and LUN security

Is outsourcing secure?
When I ask IT managers what's the one thing that keeps them from going to a public storage solution, security is their most common concern. They're not worried about a physical breach in the network cable because that's protected by fiber's inherent sensitivities to the loss of light. Their concerns involve the physical security of the storage facility, and the SAN security policies evident in its networks.

The concerns regarding physical breaches in security are real, but for the most part shouldn't be a cause for concern. When was the last time you heard of a company's data or Web site being compromised from within the walls of the organization? Hollywood movies often depict an actor walking up to a data center and plugging their laptop directly into the network. But in reality, that rarely happens because multiple levels of security must be compromised to gain physical access.

However, the lack of exclusive SAN security policies is a real concern. Will my applications have separate physical fabrics, or will they be sharing name servers and other well-known services available in the SAN? Will I be sharing storage ports with applications from other organizations? What kind of zoning and LUN security policies does the public storage vendor have in place? These are just some of the questions that storage administrators need to have answered before trusting their online data to an off-site vendor.

With public storage for your home or office furnishings, each storage space may share an adjoining wall. However, if the actual space used for storage is separate and distinct, there's only one way in and one way out. And as for physical access, most of these facilities are gated and armed with security codes needed to gain entrance to the storage space. In the data storage world, this same functionality can be had with encryption. Each application server and storage resource could pass encrypted strings that map members of a zone.

But physically separating customers in a public storage solution doesn't make economic sense for the utility company. And unless you are looking to use their location and services for an extended time, purchasing separate equipment for short-lived projects doesn't make good business sense either. Consider hiring a SAN security expert to tour and interview the potential utility to see if your applications can be compromised by the outside world.

Another potential problem is the staff of the storage utility. You have no direct control over the amount of knowledge and experience the engineer assigned to your account will have, nor over their actions should they become disgruntled. What insurance will you have against the errors and omissions of their employees? Are they bonded?

Innovative hardware functionality has always enabled power applications, and power applications have always driven hardware solutions. Public data storage solutions have yet to reach their potential because of a lack of applications to fulfill consumer needs at the right price.

When application service providers start developing applications targeted toward more common users of data storage (i.e., digital homes, phones and cameras), and it becomes easier, cheaper and more secure to manage your entire data store apart from your computing environment, we may be able to provision and access public storage for our corporate applications as well as for uploading the digital images that have become so much a part of our daily lives.

This was first published in April 2004
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