In most companies, data storage has long been viewed as a necessary evil—a tech piece plugged in to back up data just in case of a disaster. But that thinking is evolving, as the type of data stored and used today is rapidly changing.

Specifically, three major trends are forcing companies to re-evaluate storage strategies. First, more and more static data is being stored. For example, many companies now must archive e-mail or scan in all types of documents and store them electronically. Typically, these data items never change once stored.

Second, the volume of stored data is increasing exponentially thanks to the increased use of digital images, and online audio and video presentations. To put this in perspective, analysts at the storage industry consultancy The Enterprise Storage Group, based in Milford, MA, have reported that the average digital photo, at 750 KB, takes as much storage as 30 pages of plain digital text with 600 words per page. So, as far as storage measurements go, “a picture is worth 18,000 words.”

The third data trend is that many companies want all data to be available online rather than archived offline, which creates new challenges for storage management systems.

This combination of increasing amounts of fixed content data, larger data files, and the need to have instant access to all data is prompting the creation of new storage strategies. I’ll examine how a couple of new solutions are helping to streamline storage management.

Easing the management load
To meet the latest storage requirements, many companies have simply thrown more hardware at the problem—adding storage capacity to keep up with the demand.

But this approach is not cost-effective in the long run. If companies don’t determine more efficient ways to manage storage systems, the total cost of ownership will grow out of control.

“We find ourselves putting in more time managing the storage process and systems,” said Alexander Richardson, IS consultant at a California electronics manufacturing company. Richardson is looking for storage systems that have management software so he can automate manual tasks that now require costly staff time.

A handful of partnering agreements between storage equipment vendors, including EMC Corp. and Hitachi Data Systems, and software developers highlights a growing trend in which application data, the management of that data, and storage centers are becoming more tightly integrated.

The trend is driven by the idea of having data storage applications deal with much of the data management work—such as tracking which network drive, folder, or volume contains a specific file. This automation approach, according to experts, holds promise for simplifying storage management.

“As data-placement software becomes more sophisticated, applications and end users do not need to pay as much attention to the underlying architecture of the systems used,” explained David Hill, managing director of storage and storage management at Aberdeen Group, a market research firm.

One example of this new application strategy is EMC’s introduction last month of a new storage system called Centera. Centera’s approach takes data (a file, an image, a video clip, etc.) and associates it with a unique, location-independent identifier called a Content Address. The application required to view, search, or analyze the data then uses the identifier to retrieve the relevant files or items from storage.

In for the long haul
One of the biggest storage challenges companies will face soon is how to manage data—especially fixed-content data—over very long periods of time.

In general, across all markets (financial, manufacturing, healthcare, etc.), 75 percent of all new digital data is fixed content, according to Hal R. Varian, dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkley.

Varian’s research on the growth of storage requirements reveals that the amount of storage data doubles every year, and that much of the fixed-content data needs to be retained for very long times—think check images and medical X-ray files. And that’s where the total cost of ownership for storage management comes in.

Traditionally, in hierarchical storage management systems, data that is not used often is progressively migrated to lower-cost storage media. For example, data might start out being stored on a server’s hard disk drive or a high-performance storage system, and if that data is not used, the files might be moved and archived to tapes and removed from the system. But now, enterprises want quick access to all information, even if it’s data that won’t be recalled for months—so the trend has been to pull away from tape archives in closets to more accessible data storage containers.

“One of the biggest problems is that the [data] formats keep changing. And whenever you have a change in format, you have a big problem with data migration,” explained Varian. “It’s easier to have the data available on hard drives because migrating becomes a much smaller problem.”

The increasing demand for quicker, faster access and more fluid migration capabilities, along with the huge data changes taking place in today’s enterprises all signal a tech evolution in data storage. Tech leaders need to stay updated and informed about these important trends, as electronic data, after all, is a key element of business—both offline and online.