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Best Practices: The year ahead: Green power, weak dollars and more apps

Tighter budgets could mean some belt-tightening in your storage shop. To save money, you might have to spend a little to take advantage of some of the key trends for 2008: virtualization, green storage and storage as a service.

In 2008, are you willing to spend money to save money?

By the time this article is published, most of you will have returned to work after a holiday break and settled down for the year ahead. Considering this is my first 2008 column, I decided to write about some areas that will take center stage this year. For the most part, things will continue to chug along at the same pace they did in 2007, but the sluggish economy means that many storage organizations may see their budgets tightening. At the same time, new initiatives such as green data centers should have an impact on how money is spent.

Technology refresh
Several vendors have launched new products to refresh their product portfolio. EMC updated its DMX line, while Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) announced the "V," "VM" and "SMS" platforms. With a few exceptions, most of these are incremental updates. Because of acquisitions, other vendors dropped several redundant products from their portfolios. For example, Brocade announced it would drop certain McData products in favor of its legacy ones.

I see two categories of IT departments this year: those who will sign up for a technology refresh and those who feel their last upgrades were extensive enough to let them sit tight in 2008. For IT departments that have marked 2008 as the year to upgrade, it could be a mixed bag. New technology is like the latest toy--it offers a fresh set of features to utilize. However, being an early adopter has risks such as compatibility issues and/or unavailability of the features you currently have on the existing platform. Many vendors announce a refresh with fine print stating delayed availability for certain new or improved features. Whatever the reason for the upgrade, make sure you'll benefit from it.

Also expect accelerated adoption of updated speeds and feeds for IP and Fibre Channel (FC) SANs. Vendors now offer cards and ports that work at (faster) full line speeds, so selective updates may allow you to update only those components that provide benefits to servers that can push the real-life maximum of a storage port or host bus adapter (HBA). The rule of two (i.e., two HBAs per server) used to work well because most servers could hardly push anywhere close to 200MB/sec. With the advent of faster CPUs, backplanes and buses, that rule needs to be revisited. When systems are refreshed, ensure there's adequate bandwidth between the servers and storage.


Virtual everything
Systems virtualization has taken the industry by storm. VMware is everywhere, and the adoption of virtualization will continue at its accelerated pace. Competition will increase now that Microsoft, Sun and even Oracle have announced virtualization products. This puts pressure on your storage team to prepare your environment to accommodate the new "clientele." If you have a new virtualization deployment in the pipeline, check with your storage/SAN vendor--and your professional peers--to gather documentation and best practices so that any virtualization implementation you lead isn't conducted in a vacuum and that you benefit from the lessons learned by those who have gone before you.

Systems virtualization will also bring with it speedier adoption of iSCSI. iSCSI has been quietly making inroads into the FC space and will continue to do so while keeping a clear demarcation between its functions vs. those of FC. It's only a matter of time before storage teams will need to deal with both technologies concurrently, if not already.

But storage virtualization seems to have reached a bit of a plateau. Most big vendors have released roadmaps for their products. We know the virtualization strategy that vendors like EMC, HDS, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM and Network Appliance are pursuing. So unless someone announces a major change in direction, this space will remain relatively calm. Adoption will rise, but not at a surprising rate.

If you implement storage virtualization this year, do it for the right reasons: not because it's cool, but because it offers the ability to create homogeneous storage pools, seamless data mobility and, more importantly, storage tiers that can be tied to the business value of the data they store.

New and emerging technologies
Oracle has announced 11g, Sun is pushing ZFS and a lot of new apps are being adopted across the board. This means the storage team will have very little time to adjust provisioning practices to accommodate these new apps. Akin to systems virtualization, these new apps will dictate a new set of requirements, best practices and nuisance values, or possibly a whole new way in which storage is provisioned and managed. Of course, a lot of the day-to-day management is performed by the systems platforms teams, but the storage team will need to ensure that improper implementations on the host side don't cause an imbalance in the storage subsystem in terms of performance and such. Implementation of Oracle's Automatic Storage Management (ASM), for example, needs to be planned properly to avoid spindle contention and/or redundancy. Expect to see Oracle RAC and ASM play a bigger role in Oracle database environments.

The open-source movement will also play a bigger role in the storage world. Several firms, such as IBM and Sun, are contributing significantly to open-source software. The Aperi project, for example, is aimed at creating an open-source suite of storage management apps.


Another technology to watch is ATA over Ethernet (AoE). The rise of Linux and the need for low-cost storage has resulted in AoE getting high praise. The technology brings with it open-source AoE tools, and storage from vendors such as Coraid that's relatively cheap and easier to deploy than FC or iSCSI. Coraid claims the deployment cost of AoE is less than $0.64/GB.

The green revolution
It was only a matter of time before the green initiative hit the data center. Systems and CPU vendors tout the "green footprints" of their products. Systems virtualization further reduces that footprint by decreasing the number of physical servers deployed. The focus has shifted to storage and will make a noticeable impact this year. Unfortunately, reducing power footprints isn't easy, especially when the appetite for consuming storage isn't going down. Power reduction may be achieved by using denser disks, using slower disks where appropriate (by implementing effective storage tiering) and by thin provisioning. Vendors such as 3PAR, Compellent and now HDS with its V platform offer thin provisioning that allows storage to be oversubscribed. This won't drastically reduce the carbon footprint of your storage environment, but we all have to start somewhere.

If you're upgrading your systems, power and heat consumption should make it to the top of your list of important criteria. I believe environmental issues will bubble to the top of most vendors' marketing messages and will eventually force them to improve their products. Disk vendors will also be forced to introduce drives that consume less power and generate less heat. It shouldn't be that difficult to take a cue from CPU manufacturers!

Storage as a Service
Storage as a hosted service isn't new; almost all major players (both storage and nonstorage related) have offered it at some time. Some companies even made a business out of it before going under. The business almost went extinct, but seems to be making a comeback.

I'm not saying everyone will jump into storage as a service, but this could very well be the year that redefines the market. It will likely start with consumer products and services, and eventually make its way to small- to medium-sized businesses and then perhaps to the enterprise. There are plenty of things to be resolved--chief among them being security--but nothing is impossible. If the cost of managing storage in-house is a big burden to your organization, this may become an attractive option as the offerings mature.

So that's what to expect this year. The industry could have a surprise in store for 2008 that would make for a fantastic splash. But if history is any indication, storage professionals will take measured steps in adopting newer technologies, waiting until they're tried and tested, especially when some economic indicators have people watching their wallets. If it's any consolation, at least we have the Olympics to watch for excitement.

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