Enterprises sift through storage strategies

TORONTO — Information technology is viewed as a second class citizen in most organizations, and unless an IT department can become a profitable business unit, that trend will continue, according the president of research firm Enterprise Storage Group.

Five years ago, there was plenty of

money funneled into IT infrastructures, said Steve Duplessie at StorageForce 2002 Tuesday. “We spent money like drunken sailors,” he said.

Now, however, IT departments are faced with tighter budgets and hiring freezes. To overcome this, they need to show management what is required to deliver a service the organization requires. “If you know absolute cost, there’s no argument any longer,” he said.

Canadian Blood Services (CBS), based in Ottawa, took that approach in order to upgrade and grow its IT infrastructure. Heather Swayne, CBS’s manager of IT planning, security and architecture, said it had to make it clear in the budget process that less money would have a tangible impact on the services the organizations could expect.

CBS was established in 1998 to deliver blood services formerly handled by the Red Cross. It has 14 blood centres and two plasma centres across Canada and employs 4,700 people, 165 of those in information services.

“We require business sponsorship to do anything,’ said Swayne.

And CBS needed that sponsorship — its server maintenance costs were increasing and it was having trouble attracting and retaining skilled staff. To top it off, said Swayne, “our backup windows were shrinking to the point of disappearing.”

One challenge, said Swayne, was cutting through all of the industry hype surrounding storage area networks. “We had vendors coming out of the woodwork.”

CBS’s requirements ranged from storage to upgrading desktops. Its current environment is predominantly Win98 on the desktop and NT in the back end. It wants to migrate to an XP/Win2K combo.

“We don’t have a lot of resources to do this,” said Swayne. “We’re going to take this slow. We want to make sure we design our fabric right the first time.”

Statistics Canada has spent the last two years upgrading its infrastructure and storage, said Dave Tipple, manager of databases.

“My servers are mission-critical,” he said. “If we go down, my department goes down and we’re offline to the world.” The Statistics Canada Web site receives one million hits per day.

In the fall of 1999, Tipple’s department, which handles the dissemination of information, had many small systems — often one per application, direct attached disks and tape, and an overworked support staff who were ignorant of industry trends.

Then it got worse. Tipple had new systems going into production, just as his Unix systems administrator was headed out the door. “It’s really difficult to replace good people.”

Tipple was lucky in that he didn’t have to sell his position to management — they were as concerned as he was, particularly at the department’s inability to build large systems and lack of a disaster recovery plan.

“We had to change our operational procedures,” said Tipple. “We were asked to do more with less.”

Since then, Statistics Canada has consolidated servers, mounted systems are a rack — it had a major shortage of floor space — and installed remote backup services. Most importantly, said Tipple, the department installed automate monitoring. “I needed some proactive indicator that something was going to go wrong.”

One challenge for the IT organization is that management often assumes that processes haven’t changed over the years, said Duplessie. “They assume your world is static.”

He said an IT department’s best strategy is to know exactly where it stands before moving ahead. “If we can’t start from a point of view of sanity, we can’t go forward strategically.”

Duplessie said it’s important that IT managers watch out for the buzzwords in the storage industry because often the concept hasn’t gelled yet. Take quality of service, for example. “Everyone understands this term. It doesn’t exist.”

In addition, many storage tools still don’t delineate the data they manage. “Data has different value at different points in time, but we don’t treat it that way,” said Duplessie. “That’s changing.”

What won’t change is that most organizations will have heterogeneous environments. “You want to be able to buy best of breed gear,” he said. “(And) you will have disparate transports.”

And standards? “Here’s the deal with standards: Nobody buys based on standards.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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