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Data storage – Waste of space

Computer data storage is in a mess. There has been a proliferation of ways to store data as the demand to keep more and more of it on file has grown. The University of California believes as much data will be created in the next three years as in the previous 40,000 put together, yet we’re not even using the systems already in place efficiently. Hitachi Data Systems estimates that for every £1 a company spends buying storage hardware, it will end up spending an extra £15 managing it.

And Hitachi is not kidding about that under-use. Ian Lockhart, strategic project manager for the Ideal Enterprise Solutions arm of value-added reseller Ideal Hardware, says underuse is as high as 40-50% in some audits his company has undertaken. Judi Feeley, UK general manager for storage software vendor Veritas, puts it at 30-40%. Simon Gay, storage practice leader at services company Computacenter, says it may be as high as 80% for non-mainframe systems. And Jyoti Banerjee, head of consultancy Imago, which surveyed 200 UK companies of over £10m revenue, found that 75% admit they are using less than 60% of their capacity, but around 60% say they still expect to increase storage purchasing.

However, before you bend your IT director’s ear, read on. There are some valid reasons for this unused capacity. The end of the 1980s saw the spread of IT outside the traditional mainframe. Computers began to be used in branch offices, then departments, and finally appeared on nearly everyone’s desk. Then they had to be linked back to those mainframes so data could be moved around, which ended up with a consultant’s dream and a maintenance nightmare – the so-called client/server revolution. Though this revolution had many benefits, it has also meant that IT is now out of the tight control of a central IT team, and all those scattered servers have ended up having their own discrete memory and storage requirements.

Part of the problem is that the price of storage – ie, disks – has fallen, so companies have bought more and more of them. But there is a false economy, argues Gay. “You can chuck more hardware at the problem, but even if its cost is falling the total cost of ownership is going up through higher costs of back-up, administration, power, warranty, support and even floor-space rent, if you’re based in a city like London.”

The IT industry is responding with two initiatives: new technologies, especially virtualisation (see box, below), which may, when it arrives, give IT directors a more effective handle on storage; and consolidation, ie, auditing your storage and figuring out ways to use it better.

But that isn’t the whole story. “The hardware vendors have figured out that the best way to save money is to push the consolidation story,” says David Liff, European VP of storage at Computer Associates. “What’s more important is setting up a storage management strategy.”

Wayne Bugden, sales manager for storage reseller Harrier Zeuros, argues that storage should be a business issue, not a technological one, but adds that corporates have not yet bridged that gap. “The people who drive storage decisions do so for technical, not business, reasons,” he says. “There’s no connection between the storage guys and the business people, and few companies have any means of working out whether usage determines need.”

Predictably, though, Bugden also stresses that finance directors shouldn’t dismiss procuring extra storage. “Competitive advantage today is all about your clients and data on those clients. The last thing you cut, even in a downturn, is that competitive advantage,” he says.

Storage may be a dull topic, but finance and IT functions need to discuss it. Businesses need to determine whether they really need more hardware, whether they can perform better with emerging technologies, or whether better management of the underutilised capacity they already have best suits their needs.

Businesses want to be able to get away from caring about the low-level gubbins of storage, while remaining sure they know where everything is.

Basically, the system needs to be driven at a high level, so you see the wood, not the trees.

The IT industry thinks it has such an answer – virtualisation. You pour data on all your storage into one computer, which manages it for you.

More specifically, as far as this “master” piece of management software is concerned, capacity is pooled, which allows the splitting and allocation of resources democratically around the network.

Virtualisation technology is in its early days, but it promises much.

One early customer is Orange. Using prototype technology from Hewlett-Packard, the mobile phone giant has cut the number of staff needed to manage its data storage from four to one and its file servers from eight to one.

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