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Users look increasingly to storage virtualization as data grows, analyst says

I had an interesting conversation today with TheInfoPro’s managing director of storage research Rob Stevenson about the results of his firm’s latest survey of 250 Fortune 1000 and midsize enterprise storage users. Fortune 1000 users surveyed by TIP cited block virtualization as having the biggest impact on their environment this year. TIP expects 50% of the Fortune 1000 to have virtualization in use by the end of 2009. All of this is in response to ongoing and relentless data growth.

“Impact” is difficult to define, as TIP doesn’t offer definitions or parameters to the open-ended question for users, instead letting the responses shape the definition. (Midrange users cited server virtualization as having the biggest impact, and we all know that there are good and bad impacts involved).

What really stood out to me, though, when I discussed the results (as well as the semantics of the word impact) with Stevenson, was how block virtualization is being used and for what purposes. My general impression has been that block storage virtualization has not lived up to its initial round of hype as a “silver bullet” for single-pane-of-glass management of an overall storage environment. I wondered, had that changed when I wasn’t looking?

According to Stevenson, while adoption for block virtualization has risen steadily even since this past February (number of respondents with the technology “in use” went from 21% in February’s Wave 10 to 23% in Wave 11), 23% said they’re using it with just 2% of the overall storage capacity.

Stevenson said the users in this case were petabyte-plus shops that in the past year or so have seen storage balloon from the single petabyte range to 2.5 petabytes or more, with no signs of stopping. These admins are scrambling to consolidate storage, move to new technologies that offer better utilization, and automate tasks. Where block virtualization comes in for most of them is performing data migration while moving to new technologies or systems — hence the relatively small proportion of data being managed by block virtualization devices from day to day.

Meanwhile, midrange enterprises are increasingly looking to maximize their resources on the server side.  Close behind that, though, come utilization improvement technologies for storage like thin provisioning and data deduplication.

It’s largely a matter of consolidating resources and improving utilization rates. “But the big Fortune 1000 shops have a bigger ‘legacy drag’ of data that they have to move,” Stevenson said. Hence the use of block virtualization tools.

Stevenson said continued data growth and an increasing amount of complexity to go along with it–storage managers are not only managing an average of 400 TB each compared to 200 TB each a year ago, but the number of LUNs to manage within that volume is also increasing. That drives a need for automated management. While the most popular use case for virtualization seems to be data migration, Stevenson said users are finding day-to-day data movement is also increasing, bringing these devices to the forefront once again for management.

Does this mean we could be seeing block virtualization tools proliferate once the midrange market reaches the petabyte level? (After all, as the old chestnut goes, a megabyte used to be a lot of data). That’s where Stevenson’s crystal ball grows, well, cloudier.

Right now, one tentative theory is that users whose data centers already have large amounts of data under management tend to also already have specialized staff. But as the midrange market comes up against a need to scale staff as well as technology, they may turn to service providers before turning to storage virtualization devices.

“In large data centers, we see the pooling of resources among multiple data center groups to balance workload, like moving storage networking to a networking team or data classification and archiving to server and application groups,” Stevenson said. “When it comes to midsize admins having to start ‘not doing things’, it’s probably not going to come with an increase in internal staffing–instead they may look to offshoring those tasks to cloud service providers.”

But that’s not to say large enterprises won’t be looking up at the clouds, too. “We’re still working out the ‘competing futures’ if you will,” Stevenson said.

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