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Five steps to managing storage growth

Need a plan to manage your increasing storage needs? Here are five steps you can take to get a handle on growth.

Count on it: Your storage will grow. And unless you want people to start asking questions about your IT budget, you better have a better plan for managing storage growth than running out to buy more hardware.

What follows is a look at some of the basic actions you should be taking to be on solid ground: centralize storage operations, gather data on usage, talk with your customers, lead your users to determine new needs and finally, make and execute your plan.

1. Centralize

Without a central storage facility, either distributed or centralized, you simply cannot manage your storage operations, which means you cannot manage its growth.

"You have to have a consolidated, central storage setup. Otherwise, you'll never get out of the trap," says Stephen Foskett, a consultant with GlassHouse Technologies Inc.

"I can agree with that," says Karl Rautenstrauch, storage administrator for Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Florida. "If you don't, you wind up with what I call islands of storage. That storage will be attached directly to servers and you cannot hand it off to a different server." That's exactly the situation that Rautenstrauch has -- he estimates some 70 terabytes (TB) of storage in "islands," compared with 151 TB in central storage.

If you cannot control something like storage in islands, you cannot manage it, and that means you cannot manage its growth. So centralize, before you try to do anything else. Rautenstrauch says one of his greatest priorities is getting agents for his StorageScope software, from EMC, running on servers to at least monitor the isolated storage he has.

2. Gather data

Centralized storage is easier to monitor. Using some storage management software you can see who's accessing different storage volumes, how much traffic there is and how much storage the different areas in your organization are using. Foskett's firm has done studies that show that most Windows systems have storage utilization under 25%. It's not much better for Solaris systems, either. AIX systems seem to go to about 60%.

You have to decide what storage utilization percentage you think is right for your organization and its different storage functions. Your databases, for example, might use as much as 99% of available space because the data usage is very predictable. Foskett says he's seen that. Mail, on the other hand, isn't so predictable so you'd need more overhead. Rautenstrauch says he's running about 30% for Windows storage and as much as 60% for Unix storage.

Having data for several months on storage usage and knowing what you want to have for overhead for your various applications, you can begin to see when you'll need to upgrade. But that isn't the end of the story.

3. Talk to your customers

You're in IT. Your customers are the people who actually use the data you're storing. You need to talk to them and listen to how their needs will influence your growth plan.

When you're talking with customers, come armed with usage data so that if a customer says he needs more storage, and he's only using 30% of his storage allocation, you'll know there's a problem, and you can jointly determine a course of action with the customer.

But when you talk to your users, realize that they don't understand IT, and often, they may not understand the capabilities that new technologies can give them. You have to be proactive in leading the discussion and to do that, you have to understand what the technology can do to advance business goals.

Take Dr. Robert Cecil, network director for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, a series of hospitals in the Cleveland area. Cecil's customers are doctors and much of the information he stores, and his customers use, are medical images, such as scans and X-rays. "If you ask them," he says, "they'll say they have no need for an image that's over a couple months old. But if there's a two-year-old image available, they will always call it up."

4. Lead users to determine new needs

So if you knew, for instance, that you can have the capability to store all images for a period of several years, using tape as well as disk, you can lead the discussion on how that capability could be used. That will help form a plan for implementing what users need. That's just an example of how you can support the business objectives with your storage plan. And you have to do it -- not the users.

"Some people complain that business people don't understand IT. But it's the IT people who should know the business imperatives," says Bob Shinn, a principal with State Street Global Advisors. But, "It's not the business people's job to understand IT." With that business understanding, you can determine new storage needs that you cannot account for by analyzing historical trends. In Cecil's example, if you offer the capability to provide a patient's full history of medical images, and users agree they can use it, you're in a strong position to put the proper storage into the budget.

5. Make and execute your plan

Now it's time to reap the benefits of your labor. Knowing your historical trends and the upcoming needs of your business, you can plan for replacement/upgrade of high-speed disk, slower disk and even tape, if you have the requirement. You'll know when you need it and how much you'll need. In addition, you can slot in the additional storage you need for new upcoming projects that you and the users have determined you'll need to meet new business objectives.

You have to match your requirements with your resources, of course, so the budget is a huge part of the overall plan.

Now you can execute. Make sure you stick with the plan as much as possible. If you've got central storage, have gathered and analyzed your data, talked with users about current storage requirements, jointly determined new needs with the customers and built a plan with phased purchases/leases for both expected growth and new requirements, you'll be able to manage your storage growth successfully.

About the author: David Gabe has been testing and writing about computers for more than 25 years.

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