Forget everything that you learned about storage back in the days when bits and bytes lived in discrete little hard drives attached to discrete little computers that may or may not have been connected to your network.

Local storage is important, of course – to your laptop, your PDA and your iPod – but when you talk about the enterprise, you have to talk about something bigger, more fluid and more diffuse. Storage isn’t one thing in one place anymore. It’s the way you do business. It’s everywhere, and it’s available whenever you need it.

“The cost per gigabyte will always go down,” says IDC Canada analyst Alan Freedman. “But that’s not the big story in storage anymore. The real driver for that is a comment on the explosion in the sheer quantity of data out there. Electronic commerce and e-mail archives can take up a whole lot of space.”

Along with the volumes of data itself has come a new way of managing information and, consequently, new ways to store it.

Data isn’t something you produce and forget about, only to dig through directories at some point in the future when you might need it again in a few weeks. It’s the lifeblood of the business lifecycle – and that has changed everything.

“In the past, people bought one type of drive and put all of their data on it,” says Gianna DaGiau, product marketing manager of enterprise solutions at Seagate. “Now that there’s more data out there, and you can keep it for a longer time, the issue is to be able to get at it when you need it.”

Part of the equation is the simple reality that, as much as your data is essential to the functioning of the enterprise, the lack of data, or the inability to get at it quickly, can jump up and bite you in the behind. New regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States, which make executives personally liable for corporate misconduct, have pushed data management to the top of the boardroom agenda.

“There have been so many natural and man-made disasters in recent years, and there has been so much more information uptake, so organizations are very interested in things like continuous data protection and back-up,” Freedman says. “Storage is strategic now. It’s no longer a question of just adding capacity.”

Indeed, you never know when you might need that obscure e-mail or out-of-date database record, so the first reaction in many companies, according to Ken Steinhardt, director of technology and analysis at EMC Corp. in Minnesota, is to save everything. But saving everything doesn’t make it easier to get at what you need when you need it.

“The biggest thing driving everything in IT is information lifecycle management (ILM),” he says. “ILM is reality now; instead of looking at specific technologies, it asks, ‘What information do I need in my organization, how do I prioritize it, and why?’”

In effect, ILM means there’s a place for everything, and everything has to be in its place, because the smooth running of the enterprise depends on it. Although, it is an attitude or a strategy more than a technology, the technologies that ILM either implies or requires – continuous data protection, tiered storage, high performance storage-area networks (SANs), storage virtualization and all the hardware it all needs – are the hottest thing in storage. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are storage.

Tiered storage, the IT strategy that performs a kind of data triage, defining what information a company needs right now, what it can store on near-term back-ups, and what it can consign to archives, was already hot news last year, but it has moved decisively into the mainstream. The idea is simply that there’s no reason to invest in super-high-performance storage technologies for archives that you might want to use now and then. Better to put your money where you need it.

“With tiered storage, companies aren’t spending more, they’re getting more,” Freedman says. “With tiered storage, you can buy more at the same price but provision more effectively, and match the demand for the resource with the technology to deliver it.”

The technology that delivers access to these storage resources has become, fundamentally, the SAN. The networked storage paradigm shift has occurred almost imperceptibly, but just as we can’t think of personal computers without hard drives today -though older folk can still remember swapping 5.25” disks in their PCs and XTs – so it is difficult to think of enterprise storage without the SAN. At some point, everything that’s happening today in enterprise storage comes back to the network.

Indeed, if anything is happening in storage this year, it’s SAN consolidation and automation. Automation – and the confidence that networked storage will just work without human intervention is the key part of that, says Rajeev Bhardwaj, manager of product management for Cisco’s data centre and storage technology group – is the basis for everything else. “It starts with SAN consolidation,” he says. “Instead of deploying it on a per-application basis, companies are consolidating their assets. Automation enables that transparently.”

That means using fibre channel networking where you need speed, and iSCSI where you don’t need fibre channel, and the management software that knows where to put everything. IDC’s Freedman notes that the adoption of fibre channel has been higher than anticipated, even though potential buyers might have been waiting for the latest version of the standard, which promises 10 gigabit speeds, due out this summer.

“I don’t think 10 gigabit fiber channel puts much restraint on the market,” Bhardwaj says. “One and two gigabit are pervasive, and we’re seeing four gigabit on inter-switch links and in some storage, but even that’s faster than most enterprises need right now. On the other hand, even if most customers can’t even keep up with one gigabit, there’s not much price difference to the faster technology.”

There is, however, some benefit, particularly when you consider the directions that enterprise storage is taking. Higher-speed links supports SAN consolidation, which permits consolidated and simplified storage management. Though the technology itself costs money, the soft savings can be immense and that, Steinhardt says, is something that enterprises are looking at closely.

“If what is, superficially, a more complex environment can be simpler to manage, you can see real gains,” he says. “You can actually improve service levels through SAN consolidation.”

Faster, consolidated, better-managed storage networks also allows enterprises to treat all of their networked storage like a single resource. After a decade of taking halting steps from the RAID array, storage virtualization – the technology that allows organizations to treat multiple networked storage devices like a single, dynamically-allocated asset – is leaping confidently to the SAN.

Though it’s debatable whether every organization with a SAN actually needs virtualization, Steinhardt says that the fact that it is a mature technology points to the maturity of storage networking as a whole. “What customers are really interested in is infrastructures that don’t care what the underlying technology is,” he says. “Storage is not a technology now, it’s a resource that uses technologies. The data you need now is on fibre channel, what you don’t need right away is on networked attached storage and servers with serial ATA, and your archives are on tape. The key thing, and virtualization is part of this, is that it’s all treated as a single transparent resource.”

It’s all part of the strong ILM trend in enterprise data generally, and all of the hot new technologies – 10 gigabit fibre channel, iSCSI, serial ATA and the rest – are part of it.

“Ultimately, it’s a question of taking the big picture,” Freedman says. “It’s not what all of these technologies are that’s important. It’s what they can do.”

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