It’s saved but is it available?

For a defunct energy company, Enron has helped vendors sell a lot of storage technology in the last couple of years.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. The Houston-based pipeline and power distribution operation’s collapse was not the sole reason for the introduction of new legislation,

such as the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that increased corporate accountability requirements. But new corporate accountability regulations have boosted demands on the storage capabilities of publicly-traded companies, which now need to be able to produce documents, such as old e-mails, on demand.

The requirements vary by industry. For instance, the financial sector needs records of individual transactions, while the health-care sector is subject to increasingly strict rules on retaining patients’ medical data, says Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis at EMC Corp. a Hopkinton, Mass.-based storage management software and equipment maker.

Tough new legislation is not the only reason businesses are trying to improve access to archived data. In fact, says Stephanie Balaouras, enterprise computing and networking senior analyst at the Boston-based Yankee Group, many companies are formulating their data archival and retrieval requirements based on business needs.

George Ho, technology manager at ClaringtonFunds Inc., says Ontario Securities Commission rules and assorted legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley are only part of why the Toronto-based mutual funds company is looking for better ways to archive and retrieve data. The company does need to be able to retrieve months-old e-mails easily, but it also needs better ways of tracking information for its own purposes.

Connecting the tiers of storage

Legal and regulatory requirements are certainly a factor in many organizations’ search for better ways of keeping information at their fingertips, though.

“”If you want that data to be highly available,”” Ho says, “”then whatever storage medium you choose will also have to be highly available — so if you want it at the drop of a hat, you wouldn’t choose tape.””

ClaringtonFunds is still deliberating on what is the best approach. “”There’s been a least 10 different ways that people have proposed on how to store that data,”” Ho says. The company, which does not have networked storage currently, could install a storage-area network, or continue relying on direct-attached storage, or possibly turn to a service provider.

Doing these things cost-effectively depends on using a mix of storage technology — matching the medium to the frequency and speed with which data needs to be retrieved. But quick access to data also requires that whatever the storage medium, there must be a reliable way of finding and retrieving what you need quickly. That adds up to a requirement for tiers of storage tied together by networking and quite likely virtualization that hides the multiple layers of storage from the user.

“”Networked storage is a prerequisite for being able to deliver on these things,”” says Bill North, research director for storage software at Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm IDC.

EMC’s Steinhardt agrees.

“”If I’m going to take information off of one tier of storage and move it to another,”” he says, “”it’s just not possible to do that practically unless those two storage devices are networked.””

And the need for storage will continue increasing. Ronald Gruia, enterprise communications program leader at research firm Frost & Sullivan Canada in Toronto, says the growing use of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) could mean that businesses will soon need storage space to archive voice mail as well as e-mail.

Are these requirements pushing organizations toward storage networking? Not the largest ones, North says, because “”most large organizations that could take advantage of tiered storage and are affected by regulatory requirements have already adopted networked storage.””

Instead, North says, companies that already have networked storage are facing another hurdle: The tools they use to manage storage are, by and large, separate from the tools they use to manage data for compliance purposes. There is a growing need to tie the two disciplines together, and in fact some storage suppliers have already begun doing this.

“”The interesting thing about the whole regulatory environment,”” North says, “”is that it spans disciplines and it is stimulating conversations between groups of individuals and companies and corporations that normally haven’t talked to each other.””

A case in point is EMC, which last fall acquired Documentum Inc., which makes content management software.

Steinhardt says that and other recent acquisitions are aimed at turning the company from a storage software vendor to a leader in information management software. He agrees with North that networked storage is becoming the norm. “”During the last year the flip occurred, where the vast majority of leading high-end deployments of storage now are networked, whereas they used to be direct-attached,”” he says.

Virtualization makes the infrastructure look simpler

Now large organizations are grappling with the need to manage more and more information, of different types such as audio and video that did not exist before, he says. That and increased retention requirements for legal and regulatory purposes have led to a need for information life cycle management throughout the organization, Steinhardt says.

North agrees. “”From a software point of view there needs to be much more interaction between document and storage management,”” he says.

EMC is something of an exception in having actually acquired a content management company, North says, but others in the storage management field — such as IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Veritas Software Corp. — are collaborating with content-management firms.

Craig Andrews, Canadian technical director for Mountain View, Calif.-based Veritas, says compliance requirements are increasing the demand for storage capacity and to some extent forcing more storage users toward virtualization.

Storage virtualization hides the complexity of multiple types or tiers of storage by creating the appearance of a single large pool of storage. Applications write data to and read it from this pool, while virtualization software behind the scenes deals with the complexity of a mixture of media.

Andrews sees storage virtualization as a natural piece of the push toward utility computing, in which computing power becomes a resource to be used when it’s needed. But there are still some hurdles to be overcome. A lack of industry-wide standards means that virtualizing a network of storage devices from different manufacturers takes a good deal of integration. A large storage company like Veritas can make this work, he says, but it takes considerable resources and expertise.

Over time, smaller firms may adopt virtualization, Andrews says.

Balaouras says small to mid-sized firms are the next frontier for networked storage, but she warns that if storage networking vendors are going to succeed in that market, they will have to offer the technology at lower prices, and serving the smaller customers profitably will be tough.

“”There’s a lot of money involved and that’s why SANs remain pretty much in the domain of big business,”” Frost & Sullivan’s Gruia observes.

Fibre Channel, the set of standards for high-speed data transfer that is popular in large-enterprise storage networking, “”is going to be a tough sell for many small to medium businesses,”” Balaouras says. But iSCSI is more accessible to smaller organizations. By allowing the popular Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) protocol to work over Internet Protocol (IP) networks, iSCSI is making networked storage accessible to smaller organizations, which would not have considered the technology in the past. It can also be an option for larger organizations in areas where other approaches aren’t practical.

Many firms have yet to connect the islands

Steinhardt says iSCSI is a good way to integrate Windows servers into corporate storage-area networks. Adding a Fibre Channel interface to those devices is usually too costly to be practical, he says, but iSCSI allows them to hook up using an ordinary network interface.

While most large enterprises already have at least some networked storage, Balaouras says work remains to be done. Many organizations still have networked storage islands that are not connected, she says, and in the next year or so a significant number of them will be integrating these. That, Balaouras projects, could be a sizeable opportunity for networked storage vendors.

Helped along by new technologies and legal requirements and an increasing effort to sell networked storage into smaller organizations, The Yankee Group projects global storage-area network component sales will rise steadily from around US $1.6 billion last year to top $2.5 billion in 2008.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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