Managed storage comes of age

The maxim that timing is everything in business has special application to today's enterprise storage service providers. SSPs have evolved to the point where most experts and users say their time has come. With utility storage, state-of-the-art management services and savvy partnerships, today's SSPs can offer full-featured services tailored to specific enterprise needs. Also, with such new big-name players as HP, Sun and Verizon jumping into the market, interest in SSPs is intensifying.

Experts say a big problem early on was trust. In the late 1990s, most SSPs focused on primary storage, storage that acts as the external disk drives of mission-critical transactional databases. Few enterprises were willing to trust an outsourcer -- especially an unproven start-up -- with primary data. As a result, most SSPs went belly-up by the early 2000s.

"Initially, people were afraid to give up even a copy of the data, never mind the primary," says Barb Goldworm, president of Focus Consulting. "But people are more comfortable now. The players who have survived are more stable and proven."

Not only have the options become more robust, but the pressures also have increased to where many enterprises are more willing than before to consider such solutions as part of New Data Center planning. Of 104 North American IT users surveyed by Gartner in 2005, only 5 percent said they would never consider using an off-site backup service provider -- a plunge from the 30 percent to 40 percent who eschewed such services in 2003 and 2004.

"Today's enterprises see huge increases in data, as well as an increased need to address big issues, such as disaster recovery and compliance, while at the same time they're faced with cutting the IT budget," Goldworm says. "Something has to give. And offloading to an SSP can make sense."

Compliance plays a role

For many enterprises considering SSPs, a large motivator is compliance with government and industry regulations. Carol Klein, practice administrator for OMSA, an oral surgery practice in the U.S. city of Grand Rapids, says her firm contracted with SSP LiveVault (now Iron Mountain Digital) to ensure compliance.

"We have patient data, our financials, patient billing and scheduling. All that data sits on our F drive and is the lifeblood of this practice," Klein says. In the past, Klein backed up OMSA's four offices, which are connected via T-1 lines, to the main server in Grand Rapids, and then backed up that server to tape every night. An employee brought the tape home for safekeeping -- a practice she says made her uneasy. "You never really knew where the tape went, if it was left in the car, exposed to the heat or whatever," she says.

Then the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act hit. "With HIPAA, we are required to keep our data secure. We really needed to find a better solution," she says.

OMSA selected LiveVault because it was inexpensive -- US$1,600 per year for 10GB of storage -- and provided state-of-the-art archival and recovery capabilities, Klein says. It included far better security than she could provide, because the service encrypts the data the minute it leaves OMSA's premises and stores it in a separate, hardened facility. The selling point, however, was LiveVault's partnership with Kodak Practiceworks, which provides OMSA with practice-management software.

Nightly backups, done at midnight, take seven minutes instead of the hours required for backing up to tape, Klein says. The reason is that after the initial server image is replicated to LiveVault -- a process that takes about two days and is done on a weekend -- the LiveVault software backs up only the changes rather than the entire server.

Restores are also quicker. With tape, Klein had trouble restoring files. "I had a lot of errors and sometimes couldn't find a tape that would let me restore. And sometimes the tape backup failed, and then I would come in the next morning and not have anything."

Now if she needs a file restored, Klein just enters her user ID and password into LiveVault's management console, chooses restore, browses the backup server, clicks on the file and instantly restores it. "It's far easier and more consistent," she says.

OMSA typifies much of the SSP customer base, says Mike Karp, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. "Today's SSPs are offering storage plus services, and the storage management is a definite value-add," he says.

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