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Top tips to control storage budgets in '06

With capacities spiraling upward and budgets barely meeting inflation, analysts offer some tips to help storage managers stretch every dollar.

The latest numbers from IDC report that the worldwide external storage market has grown over 13% in the previous year. A 58% leap in total disk storage from the third quarter of 2004 now places total disk storage at 505 petabytes . But while sales of external storage systems and total storage capacities are growing, many enterprise storage budgets are stuck in neutral.

"I see these budgets remaining fairly flat," said Tony Asaro, senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group. "Storage budgets are going up at about the same rate as inflation." With capacities spiraling upward, and budgets barely meeting inflation, managers have to limit staffing, plan new projects more conservatively and make far stronger justifications for technological improvements.

Analysts offer up some practical tactics to help storage managers stretch every dollar in 2006.

Leverage declines in storage costs. Storage products are generally getting cheaper. "But because the cost of storage is going down about 20-25% annually, they [storage managers] are buying more for the same amount of money," Asaro said. Conversely, leading (more costly) storage products are providing additional features and performance not seen in earlier products. For example, a 200 GB SATA II hard drive can now be purchased for the same price that a 160 GB SATA drive might have cost just a year or two ago.

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This rapid decline in storage costs is changing the basic IT purchase paradigm. Stephen Foskett, director of strategy services at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., explains that companies are quickly moving away from buying storage products on a per-project basis dedicated to particular tasks or users, and instead purchasing more on an as-needed or just-in-time basis across the entire organization -- sharing storage across applications or business units. "You're no longer purchasing four or five year's worth of storage at once." Foskett said. "You're purchasing what the company needs for this year, and then next year you'll buy what the company needs for that year."

Consider second-level vendors or products. Storage managers sometimes opt to work with the largest vendors (e.g., IBM or EMC Corp.), selecting top-level products with a myriad of features and capabilities. This typically leads to pricey products. However, analysts suggest that omitting products with unneeded or superfluous features (especially for midrange storage systems) may lead buyers to less expensive products that will still meet storage objectives. "Buy lower end storage than even the midrange storage that they're considering today," Foskett said. "In many cases, they're not using the features of the midrange storage devices [anyway] but they're buying -- so they could get by buying storage from one of the second-tier vendors at a much lower cost." Don't buy what you don't specifically plan on using.

Consider server and SAN consolidation. Analysts agree that consolidation saves money. One obvious improvement is the reduction in labor costs by shrinking the amount of hardware that must be administered and maintained. "They're consolidating sometimes legions of old Windows and NetWare servers down onto just a few large NAS arrays from companies like EMC and Network Appliance [Inc.] and HP [Hewlett-Packard Co.]." Foskett said. Merging disparate storage networks also makes unused storage available to a wider number of users. "Isolated storage is less utilized than shared storage," he said, noting that utilization rates for SAN islands can vary from 10-100%. "Moving to a single SAN allows use of underutilized storage."

The process of consolidation should also include a serious examination of de-duplication technologies to prevent duplicate data from consuming unnecessary storage space. Successful consolidation efforts can also save capital expenses by forestalling new storage system purchases for a year or more.

Look for efficiencies in new product acquisitions. Consolidation can also extend to storage infrastructure components, and analysts suggest that routine replacements or upgrades in 2006 should include maintenance and ease-of-use simplifications wherever possible. "We see a lot of people replacing small switches, that are now five years old, with larger directors," Foskett said. "One company had twelve 24-port switches, and they replaced them with a pair of directors." Foskett notes that it's much easier to maintain two devices connected to a SAN rather than 12. In many cases, the jobs performed by many individual devices can be consolidated into far fewer devices today, leading to lower acquisition/replacement costs and less management/troubleshooting.

Implement tiered and archival storage. Storage tiering continues to attract tremendous attention, matching storage platform performance to the importance or value of enterprise data. Traditional storage put all data on one expensive, high-performance medium. But companies are learning that not all data demands the performance or expense of Fibre Channel (FC). Adding a secondary tier of storage is a less expensive acquisition (versus buying more FC), and frees up existing FC storage for more important data. "By using tiered storage, I have my expensive Fibre Channel drives and my lower cost SATA [or SAS] drives to drive down costs," Asaro said. See the article Getting a handle on tiered storage

Archival storage offers similar savings, allowing important (but infrequently accessed) data to reside on low-cost storage subsystems. "I see more archival storage being acquired," Asaro said. "People will buy archival storage just as low-cost storage, or a lower tier to keep data online and available to them." For example, a health care provider may relegate x-ray or MRI data to archival disk storage where it can be accessed when needed, but may not demand the accessibility associated with databases or other business-critical tasks.

Work to improve processes and procedures. A lack of adequate process documentation can become a significant strain on personnel, especially in larger IT organizations with a wide variety of systems and platforms. Analysts suggest that a move to standard builds for storage devices and more attention to procedural documentation can pay dividends by reducing the amount of labor needed to configure and maintain systems. This allows personnel to be reallocated to more productive projects -- improving productivity without adding head count. "You could get by with less staff if you had better management processes," Foskett said. "One of our customers has dozens of identically configured midrange storage arrays managed by half a dozen people. They're able to do this because all of the storage arrays and all of the switches are configured exactly the same way."

Don't waste money renewing service contracts. Products under warranty will often include service agreements (extending beyond the warranty period), but renewing those service agreements may become a prohibitive expense for some organizations. Storage infrastructure should never be used in a production environment without an adequate provision for service/maintenance, but it's always worth taking a hard look at the cumulative costs. "One of the most expensive choices you can make is continuing to use a device after the warranty is up," Foskett said. "Several years of maintenance contracts on a five-year old device is going to cost more than replacing that device." When service contracts become too expensive, consider a break/fix strategy -- simply paying for service calls and routine maintenance as you go. If you lease storage equipment, Foskett said that lease buyouts rarely make financial sense in the face of declining storage costs. Ultimately, an enterprise can continue to realize value from obsolete, out of warranty equipment by relegating those devices to testing/development tasks.

Reallocate aging storage equipment. In spite of the recent attention given to tiered storage, there's no rule that says all storage must be new. Asaro suggests that aging Tier-1 storage devices can be reallocated for Tier-2 storage duties regardless of their warranty or service contract status. "Keep older technology for lower tiers of storage," he said. "Decommission some of that storage for Tier-1 applications, but still keep it in place for Tier-2 applications." This tactic works best with storage virtualization technologies to make the transition more transparent. However, reallocated equipment must still meet the service level requirements that have been established for that tier.

Negotiate for every dollar. Storage system purchases can often involve significant amounts of capital, but Asaro points out that a vendor's quote is not a fixed price. "Negotiate the hell out of everything," he said. Open competition between multiple vendors can help to drive down purchase costs. "It's a buyer's market. Always have multiple vendors in there." But this tactic also works for warranties, service and maintenance expenses. Asaro suggests pushing vendors for longer warranties and service contracts.

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