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Storage front-and-center in 2007

Farewell the storage problems of 2006 and bring on the new year

For many companies, 2006 has seen storage problems come to a head. The pressure of ever-expanding data volume, puzzlement over effective backup and retrieval of email, video and voice, and concern about provisions for business continuity pose complex challenges. Storage accounts for more than 50 percent of many IT budgets and consumes more planning time than ever.

Without doubt, 2007 will bring more pressure related to compliance and data retention, and users will demand ever-better data access and security. Looking on the bright side, this means that storage operations are valued more than ever before. And there is a great deal of new technology available, as well as lower prices per gigabyte. Finding the ideal storage solution for your organization can be a source of great professional satisfaction.

However, many Hong Kong businesses face growing data volume and complexity without additional budgetary resources. "A joint effort of business and IT is needed to create a sustainable storage strategy, based on the business value of the data," said Betty Lin, industry solution sales country manager, Sun Microsystems Hong Kong, "As an alternative to throwing expensive disk [storage] at the data growth problem, a strategy should include technologies like storage consolidation, virtualization and centralized management, which can reduce overall cost and increase efficiency. IT executives should educate their business executives on the severity of the issue."

Currently, many organizations tend to make multiple copies of their data. "On the production database you have a live copy and one or two backups, a development copy, one offsite for data protection, and another for data mining or BI," said Graham Penn, IDC's associate VP for storage, AP, "So it's easy to start with two terabytes of data and end up with 20 terabytes spread around a global network. ILF is making organizations wake up to where their data is and how they are moving it around."

"Google and Yahoo have datacenters the size of 10-12 football fields spinning iron and the volume is growing at hundreds of terabytes a day," continued Penn. "Airlines banks and government departments are all caught up in this issue. Software is becoming a key part of managing your data. ILM is part of it, helping users to manage data and reduce costs."

In 2006, it was widely realized that the one-size-fits-all approach to storage no longer works. "Storage requirements now vary by application and even by user within an application," said Lawrence Li, Symantec's system engineering manager. "File storage for instance, has different requirements for performance, recoverability and scalability than customers facing web content, internal email, or mission critical database records."

Users tackle ILM

HDS has tiered hardware and management products for open systems, mainframes and NAS. The vendor emphasizes data replication and moving data non-disruptively across the various storage tiers, using its virtualization controllers as a front end to the external storage systems.

When it comes to ILM, HDS collaborates extensively with Arkivio, StoredIQ and a number of other partners to provide a comprehensive offering. HDS's contribution is the hardware (particularly storage devices and virtualization controllers) and the storage-resource management (its HiCommand suite, which manages discovery, tuning, tiering and a number of other storage aspects) that enable policy-based automated storage movement across storage tiers. The company also provides a suite of business-continuity tools that create data copies, replicating them across local heterogeneous tiers of storage and out to remote recovery sites.

"Storage volume is growing fast, with more multimedia, video and image data," said Fred Sheu, marketing director, Technology Solutions Group, HP HK. "ILM is used increasingly, and IT managers are determining the value of data, especially in the light of compliance requirements. But only large enterprises are using ILM fully-for example, chargeback mechanisms to make users pay for their storage service are not used much."

Although ILM is not new, Hong Kong users, like others around the world, are struggling to define the best ILM policy. "They have to map their organization's data values to the available storage infrastructure, and that requires input from the internal end-users of storage," said Douglas Lo, IBM's senior IT specialist, system storage, Systems and Technology Group, "However, it also requires expertise, including help from vendors, consultants and standards such as ITIL."

"We use ILM to some extent. Certain applications need high performance disks, and some are less critical but need a near-online response, while other data are not so critical," said Norris Hickerson, VP, data centre & engineering services, COL. "The main problems for Hong Kong users, especially small companies, is that they can define data tiers, but they may not have enough data volume at every tier to make ILM effective."

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ILM helps organizations lower their effective hardware costs as well as the total cost of ownership of storage. "ILM is being implemented fairly well in Hong Kong," said Li, "However, many of the existing practices are applying ILM at the application level and not at the information level. Symantec affords organizations the ability to manage information from the time it's created, until it is archived to tape for long term storage and eventually retired."

One emerging trend is increased use of multimedia, where industries involved in video and digital entertainment media are seeing exponential growth of storage demand. "Some businesses operate almost 24 hours and it is difficult to find time for backup," said Lo, "More important is an emerging need for continuous data protection. As a result, real-time, disk-to-disk synchronized backup is growing globally."

Virtualization and autonomic provisioning

"We are seeing increased adoption of storage virtualization in both mainframe and open systems environments," said Sun's Lin. "This is driven by IT shops which need to manage up to tenfold more data with the same number of staff."

Users are focused on the time-to-market of their own products, so they want IT including storage resources, ready on time when they need them, which means flexible on-demand infrastructure, according to Lo. "They don't want to focus on hardware, but on provisioning for new projects, so that's why virtualization is a hot topic," he said.

Storage virtualization improves utilization enabling administrators to pool all storage into logical groups that can be reallocated quickly or in real-time based on demand," said Ko from HDS.

"Therefore, users' priorities are switching from acquiring additional storage to achieving better utilization of what they have. This is where array-based storage virtualization comes into play," added Ko.

Another strategy that responds to the customer needs for rapid provisioning is Autonomic Provisioning, which enables storage provisioning to be decided as a policy based on business rules. "So, instead of constantly monitoring IT projects and provisioning them individually, a policy relates storage to server activity, projects, operating systems and decisions on storage provisioning, so decisions can be made more or less automatically," said Lo.

A significant proportion of users are switching from outright purchase of storage arrays towards procurement of storage capacity under an on-demand financing scheme, said Gartner analyst Adam Couture. "The number of companies purchasing storage on an on-demand basis has risen dramatically during the past year-it will account for seven percent of storage acquisitions by 2008."

Business continuity and disaster recovery

Small and midsize businesses face challenges in acquiring business continuity and disaster recovery services says Gartner analyst Roberta Witty in a November 2005 report: "SMBs Must Raise Awareness of Importance of Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery Plans." Reasons include inadequate resources to provide a 'good enough' job with disaster recovery; failure of SMB management to focus on what they may see as hypothetical disaster scenarios; absence of multiple facilities to use as offsite recovery sites.

SMBs must make management realize that "having a business continuity plan in place will ultimate cost less than not having one," said Witty. One persuasive activity recommended is to perform an informal business impact analysis, risk assessment and tabletop test.

Hong Kong organizations do well against global standards for security and business continuity practices. Offsite data backup can straddle the Hong Kong-mainland border. "Local companies affiliated with Chinese companies across the border make strategic decisions to deploy shared datacenters and telco links," said Lo. "Drawbacks like high running costs, cultural and language obstacles, less stable electricity supplies do not prevent collaboration through strategic corporate networks. Where cross-border networks are less cost-effective than is desired, the usual policy is to prioritize the most critical data operations and storage functions and expand from that base."

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Statistics show that 30 percent to 60 percent of all backup jobs do not complete successfully, says Lin. "The most common problems for companies backing up straight from disk to tape are firstly, failure of backup due to errors such as changes to administrator password, directory path name and keying typos and secondly, backup is 'aborted' when the time window for the job has been exceeded. This is a business risk unknown to many managements."

Many local companies are facing backup problems. "Data is growing very rapidly but the time available for backup is shrinking, particularly with applications running on a 24x7 basis. So a highly scalable backup solution is essential," said Li. "One of the most difficult areas for storage and backup is with file servers where the stored data can easily grow to the terabyte level but backup speeds remain comparatively slow."

A key solution is disk-to-disk backup. "Disk-based backup is one of the best hopes for near-perfect backup," said Li. "A number of years ago people were thinking LAN-free backup was the best solution but now people are thinking in terms of volume-based backup with file-based restore capability, all using disks. Server-free backup is also being adopted."

"We now do our backup disk-to-disk and backup the copy on tape. Previously, we were online during daytime and batched the backup at night," said Hickerson, "Now, customers using online systems expect 24x7 access, so we have 24x7 hours working, there is no opportunity to use direct tape backup."

2007 offsite backup encryption

In a January 2006 report, Gartner analyst Adam Couture found that concern over theft or loss of archive tapes is changing users' behaviour. "50 percent of high-end respondents say they will encrypt all backup tapes and 58 percent will review their internal backup security policies." The same survey reported that an 'alarming 60 percent' of low-end respondents and 80 percent of high-end respondents continue to back up data to a local device.

"In 2007, I expect that financial or healthcare institutions will face some compliance-related issues when they perform online backup to remote sites," said Hickerson. "They need to ensure that sensitive information relating to customer accounts is well protected. Online encryption is one solution."

2006 saw increased reports of offsite archive tapes being stolen or lost and users are looking for a solution. "High-speed tape encryption-our system encrypts at 120 MB/second-is something more users need, and key management software is included," said Lin.

Disaster recovery

Midland Realty has a production datacenter at our head office, and this is connected over a fibre network, to its new standby storage facility at PCCW which is now synchronized almost real-time, and acts as the DR site. "Our server writes to both sites for data synchronization, with just a few seconds delay, so if the connection were cut, we would lose very little data," said Francis Fung, CTO, Midland Realty, "In case the production site has problem, all our 300 branches can access PCCW with minimum interruption through an optical network."

"All our 300 branches are connected to the production servers, and in case of disaster, we would switch them over manually to the standby systems at PCCW's IP network in about half an hour," continued Fung, "We considered automatic switchover, but that raises the danger of switchover if our network became congested."

"In our business, we handle many contracts and other documents related to customer transactions, and we have installed a document imaging system to store them," said Fung. "Usually, standard documents are changed to suit the contract, then signed, and we make copies. The originals are sent to our physical store, and the copies can be scanned and linked to our database for searching."

Typical Hong Kong companies do not excel at business continuity planning, and backup activities are often too casual, with no offsite location, even for archive tapes. "The trend is to take backup more seriously, and make more use of data replication between two sites," said Ko. "Smaller companies use a commercial datacenter, with a synchronous link for banks and other companies with online transactions, and cheaper asynchronous solutions for the rest. More serious offsite protection of tapes is another trend."