Time to set storage strategy

Low storage costs and new players and technology entering the storage market mean it's a good time to reevaluate your corporate storage strategy. The real action is shaping up in the data center storage market.

The competition for your storage dollars is about to get fierce. EMC, a longtime leader in corporate storage, is being hammered on all sides from competitors, and the pressure is only going to get worse. Unless your organization has a compelling need to make additional storage purchases today, your best bet is to wait and see how the storage market shakes out over the next six months.

To be prepared for the new storage market, it’s time to consider how new developments in storage technologies will affect your organization. I’ll examine corporate storage strategies and take a look at the new players and new technologies in this rapidly changing market.

The need for a strategy
All corporations need a formal strategy for the distribution and management of storage assets. The cost of desktop storage has dropped from dollars per megabyte in the 1980s to pennies per gigabyte today. However, for many organizations, the first question to answer is whether they need all that storage space.

Even after loading up a desktop with all the bells and whistles of the latest Microsoft OS and productivity applications, there’s usually half of a 20-GB hard drive left over. And since many newer applications are deployed as Web applications, the need for local storage further decreases. However, the rise in Web-based applications does stimulate the need for more staged or centralized storage. But unless they’re doing advanced data analysis or video editing, most corporate users will never need 80-GB hard drives.

Many companies use a hard drive’s excess space to store a mirror image of the base configuration to regenerate a user’s desktop configuration remotely in the case of a virus attack or a software installation gone awry. PCs with important data can be mirrored easily and cheaply with existing hardware. Advanced desktop operating systems like Microsoft Windows 2000 and XP support mirrored hard drives without using specialized hardware, which makes it simple to create systems that will survive hardware problems.

Putting cheaper storage to good use
The real strategic benefit of cheaper storage is in departmental or data center storage, especially as new technologies come to market. Companies and departments of all sizes can benefit from the advances in Network Attached Storage (NAS) solutions. NAS devices allow users to share storage without having to manage the complexity of a local server. Recognizing the trend toward unmanaged departmental storage, Microsoft has provided a software-based solution called Windows Powered NAS.

Windows Powered NAS lets companies consolidate multiple file servers into a single solution, resulting in significant cost reductions. It also increases manageability by enabling policy-based management of storage resources. As OEMs begin rolling out solutions based on this technology, departmental NAS devices can become part of an organization’s overall managed storage strategy.

Microsoft isn’t the only company interested in this space. Several manufacturers are developing Linux-based shared storage solutions based on either NFS or the SAMBA file system (making them compatible with Windows-based networks). Small businesses and remote offices will also benefit from the inevitable bundling of storage as well as wireless connectivity, router and switch technology, and Internet communication standards like PPTP and IPSec. By the end of the year, several companies will be offering remotely manageable hardware solutions that integrate firewall, router, wireless access point, Web server, and NAS.

The battle for the data center
Although these integrated devices will sell, the real battle for the storage dollar is shaping up in the data center. Several trends are driving demand for more data center storage.

As online storage keeps getting cheaper, tape backup solutions become less appealing because of the time required to recover from tape and the sequential nature of tape storage. Plus, the cost per gigabyte of tape storage is staying relatively constant, while the cost per gigabyte of hard drives keeps dropping. As connectivity’s cost decreases and its reliability increases, more companies will consider consolidating storage in the data center. Web applications and data warehousing systems both contribute to the consolidation trend.

Large companies are also beginning to recognize that heterogeneous system support for storage is mandatory. As corporations deploy storage area networks (SANs) in their data centers, they’re looking for solutions that support data storage from UNIX, mainframe operating systems, and Windows-based systems on the same SAN. EMC has always excelled in this area.

EMC was built on the premise that companies want to consolidate enterprise storage. Unfortunately, it was also built on the premise that corporations would always have to pay a premium to get the benefits of storage consolidation.

When companies like Dell enter the market in full force later this year (Dell is actually using EMC technology to create its own devices to compete with EMC), the cost per gigabyte of enterprise storage will decrease for everyone. Even companies like Cisco—traditionally a communications company—are looking at the enterprise storage market as a potential source of new revenue.

In fact, EMC technically isn’t even the top dog anymore—HP/Compaq is. With its recent acquisition of Compaq, HP is now the top provider of storage solutions in the industry with a 25 percent market share vs. 17 percent for EMC. Of course, what all the players in the storage market must figure out is how to move from the commodity hardware business into the business of providing management software for disparate SANs.

The future is software
Most companies don’t have the luxury of a homogenous processing environment today, and the same applies for data storage devices. Most data centers have multiple vendors for storage devices. The challenge is to make these devices look like a single storage pool that any of several systems can allocate from.

EMC is working to extend its existing management software to work with competitors’ storage products. Unisys just released a new storage management software product, called Storage Sentinel, that works with storage arrays from EMC, IBM, Hitachi, and HP and that supports Windows-, Linux-, and Solaris-based servers. Although it’s not a Unisys-only solution since it includes other vendors’ components, products like Storage Sentinel go a long way toward solving the storage management issues faced by data centers.

As you develop and create your storage strategy, you need to realize that storage solutions are following a path similar to that of the personal computer. As the cost of the hardware declines, the cost of the software and personnel to maintain and manage it becomes much larger.