Growing into storage

Despite its dull exterior and lacklustre reputation, storage is actually more exciting than any other area of IT. Imagine — or remember — standing in the shoes of a new CTO who’s facing the technical challenges and business demands of your new job. Defining a winning enterprise storage strategy may well be your single most important achievement toward steering your company to a more effective use of technology and greater competitiveness in the global market.

A poll of 475 readers on their plans, goals, and concerns relating to enterprise storage, says loud and clear that storage has a significant impact not only on respondents’ budgets but also on their business plans. In fact, more than 52 per cent of respondents report that business managers, as well as IT managers, are involved in purchasing storage-related products and services: a clear sign that storage is integral to a business strategy — rather than a purely technical asset — for their companies.

Never has strategy been more important than for today’s growing enterprise storage needs. According to the Storage Survey conducted by Computerworld’s sister publication InfoWorld, 391 respondents plan to collectively spend about $US200 million on hardware, software, and storage services during the next 12 months. The expenditure of such a staggering amount of money must be carefully planned and finalised according to clear, long-term objectives; spending such large budgets will fail if it is reactive, filling an IT administrator’s storage needs as he stumbles over each one of them.

Taming the Hydra

Although your company’s sector and technical infrastructure will inform your storage strategy, some general guidelines emerge from the Storage Survey data. One of the most interesting — not to mention exasperating — aspects of storage is its Hydra-like hunger for greater data capacity, more network bandwidth, and increasingly complex management and data protection issues. A healthy storage strategy requires equal attention to each of these requirements. Favouring just one, such as adding capacity without providing adequate data recovery or network bandwidth to support it, would create an imbalance and eventually diminish or nullify the benefits of the investment.

And readers understand that. When asked to rank their top storage priorities for the coming year, responses were almost equally divided. More than 40 per cent of survey respondents agree that optimising storage allocation and reducing costs are top priorities in their imminent storage projects; they split their votes equally (about 30 per cent each) among reducing database restore and backup time for business-critical applications; opening up the bandwidth throttle; developing better disaster recovery solutions; and improving the manageability and flexibility of their storage systems.

Intention vs implementation

But, because real life has a way of impinging on the best-laid plans, the Storage Survey also revealed an occasional disconnect between intention and implementation of a well-rounded storage strategy.

Take disaster recovery, an indicator of the maturity of a company’s storage strategy: more than one quarter of respondents don’t yet have a disaster-recovery plan in place, although they plan to implement one, and 5 per cent of respondents are simply keeping their fingers crossed.

The good news is that the 65 per cent of respondents who do have a recovery plan are devising very effective solutions to ensure data availability, such as implementing local mirroring (72 per cent) and local snapshots (48 per cent). Not every company can afford to maintain a secondary location to resume their business; nevertheless, 28 per cent has implemented remote mirroring or remote snapshots at a different location.

Sizing up the storage problem is the obvious first step to building proper solutions. When asked to quantify the storage allocated to each operating system, however, survey respondents were unable to give accurate estimates — surprising, considering that optimising storage allocation was listed as a top priority for 45 per cent of respondents. But this dichotomy can be explained: only 33 per cent of respondents currently run storage management software, which helps assess storage allocation.

Data protection is a top driving factor for our readers’ storage strategies, which is confirmed by the surprisingly high number of respondents who have already implemented — 43 per cent — or plan to deploy soon — 23 per cent — data security solutions (see sidebar for more on enterprise storage security). Also, the need to store and preserve terabytes of e-mail messages is behind new storage implementations for 61 per cent of respondents. Backups barely edge out e-mail storage for new storage with 69 per cent of the vote; disaster recovery and file-sharing solutions were also cited.

An enterprise storage strategy isn’t built from servers and tape libraries alone networking technologies play a vital role as well. Ethernet is, without a doubt, the most popular networking protocol; 79 per cent of survey respondents already have deployed it or will shortly. Respondents suggest a future mass migration to Gigabit Ethernet; 59 per cent — triple that of respondents with current deployments — have Gigabit Ethernet plans for the year. And our readers show a similar enthusiasm for Fibre Channel networks: 49 per cent say they’ll roll out such a network in the next 12 months, up from the 18 per cent who use them now.

Plans to build fast networks go hand in hand with installing networked storage solutions. In fact, an astonishing 75 per cent of respondents plan to have a file-based or block-based storage network deployed within the year. Also, 28 per cent plan to roll out or are considering deploying management software to simplify administration and make the most of their investment in networked storage.

Chief technologists are being pressed by a persistently unfavourable economic cycle and by unrelenting demands for capacity. They are nevertheless investing in new storage networks to keep costs under control and to make their storage systems more flexible and resilient. If the survey makes one thing clear, it’s that enterprise storage has become a keystone to a business plan: three out of four companies are building a solid storage network to secure their future.

Locking down storage networks

Security of storage networks is a significant concern for more than 50 per cent of respondents to the 2003 Storage Survey. Networked storage extends the vulnerability of company data to new access points, such as switches, routers, and bridges, and through direct remote access to storage devices. In response, 43 per cent of survey respondents have deployed security products for networked storage, and 23 per cent more will soon follow.

Ideally, each entry point to networked storage has a gatekeeper, namely the IPsec protocol, to prevent tampering. For this to happen, vendors must include security mechanism in their devices. Major vendors such as Cisco and Brocade are working to that effect. But even a future with VPN authentication at every SAN access point will require administrators to consolidate and monitor consistent security policies across various vendors’ implementations.

As a restricted environment, Fibre Channel networks are less exposed to intruders than the ubiquitous IP networks and offer practical methods to limit access only to trusted devices in the network, such as LUN (logical unit number) masking and zoning. But as more IT staffs integrate the two technologies, the risk of break-ins increases. In addition, those techniques protect the storage device rather than the data, so moving data to a different device could leave it unprotected.

Securing storage networks is no trivial problem, so the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) last year formed a body called the Storage Security Industry Forum to act as evangelist and promoter of improved storage networks security. This group is supported by vendor members.

It is too soon to predict what solutions the SNIA security forum will deliver, or when. But some vendors are already offering devices that tackle the problem at the source; they use intermediate boxes to enforce strong encryption algorithms, wrapping an entire Fibre Channel SAN with end-to-end authentication and data protection.

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