After the winter, what to plant?

As I write this, the big brains at the National Bureau of Economic Research have just announced that the recession is over. Actually, those economists say that it was over nearly two years ago. Funny, nobody told the rest of us, and there are still more than nine million people out of work. But even if you take the dimmest view of the current economy, you can feel a slight breeze stirring out there. After the initial shockwave of the bubble bursting, companies remembered how to live in lean times and now some are even learning to inch forward during them.

In our storage corner of the world, we seem to be standing at a different sort of crossroads. The Fibre Channel revolution--if you'll permit that phrase--has run its course, with the result being that storage area networks (SANs) are now becoming mainstream in large companies. A second revolution is just beginning in the form of much less-expensive SANs that will be based on iSCSI and serial ATA drives and that will make SANs more pervasive, both in the applications that they serve and the size of organization that can afford them. By next year, the convergence of file- and block-based storage into more unified networks will be much further along, with more gateway or network-attached storage aggregation products available. In sum, storage networking is halfway through a quantum leap in usefulness and affordability, although certainly more leaps will be needed.

Put together an economy no longer in deep shock and a technology no longer in beta and you can see that your 2004 budget planning, capital and operational, takes on special importance. You'll have to decide whether to lobby for major infrastructural change. On the plus side, prices are low, more mature products are a delivering higher value and vendors are in an unusually solicitous mood. Catch them before the arrogance gene kicks in again.

Yet the risks are still high: weak management tools, nagging hardware compatibility issues and a commitment to interoperability that varies from steady and sincere to something more like an alcoholic's promise to sober up. And that's not counting the specific risks you might face--weak markets for your company's products or services, corporate inability to reconcile investment in growth with preserving short-term profits, and so on.

Nonetheless, it's worth giving serious thought to ratcheting up your storage networking plans for 2004. If you think that's career suicide, see if you can tie proposed investments to serious growth or cost control, to major application projects, or position them as part of your normal lease or capital replacement cycle. The bigger risk, maybe, is to be left on the platform when the train starts chugging (however slowly) down the tracks.

Many people have learned to keep their heads down, their mouths shut and their eyes on their feet over the last three years, but it's not a posture that you want to stay in forever. As you look ahead to 2004, don't assume business as usual will get the job done.

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