Complicated practices, tight budgets keep storage utopia out of IT

Dave Tipple, Statistics Canada’s database manager, faced an uphill battle with data storage. The tape backups he used were cumbersome; every day, one of his staff members would have to gather the media and lug it away. No one had checked to see if the ancient devices had retained their data.

Some of the servers were running at capacity while others were underused. They were stacked atop each other like an electronic Tower of Pisa.

As well, “my computer room was busting at the seams,” Tipple said during a recent conference devoted to the future of data storage. He added that Stats Can didn’t even have a disaster recovery plan.

But Tipple had no trouble convincing management to invest in improved storage devices; catastrophe did the trick. In 1997, a water main burst at his workplace. It occurred on a weekend, so no one knew what had happened until the following Monday. The flood fried circuits in the basement electrical panel and threatened to drown the computer room.

Thanks in part to that close call, the storage situation took a turn for the better. Tipple provisioned racks to keep the servers and other boxes off the floor, for example, and from there the changes kept coming. Once upon a time, Stats Can had a tape drive for each server, but whenever the group needed to replace one, Tipple had to source a new drive at $7,000. After the flood, he moved to a more consolidated system, whereby four servers connect to one backup device.

“I have achieved economies of scale,” he said, adding that the move saved Stats Can at least $28,000.

Tipple’s life is now simpler with respect to data storage – but it’s also more complicated in other ways. “What I thought was the end of the tunnel was actually the train coming towards me,” he said, citing a tight budget and big expectations from above as factors confounding his bliss.

As complicated as data storage appears today, it could become even more so in the future. Judging by comments made during the Toronto conference at which Tipple spoke, complexities and tight IT budgets stand in the way of a data storage paradise. The event, Storage Force 2002, was sponsored by Kanata, Ont.-based systems integration firm Kanatek Technologies Inc.

Steve Duplessie, the keynote speaker from Milford, Mass.-based research firm Enterprise Storage Group Inc., presented his ideal vision of data storage, wherein the resource is like a utility for the corporation, as easy to turn on, off, up or down as the bathroom taps.

“There are steps…you can take to ensure better availability (of storage space) overall,” he said. But those steps are many and intricate, including separating info by type and department, setting enforceable service level agreements based on lines of business, and establishing protocols to port older data from expensive equipment to “cheap” media.

Companies should strive for a top-level view of storage with topological mapping and other sorts of storage resource management (SRM) practices, Duplessie said. “You can’t move forward strategically until you know where you are tactically.”

But a snag in his argument arose concerning companies’ purse-string holders, who might not spend the requisite cash to realize this data storage dream. “There’s no way to move forward without spending money,” he said. “That’s the bad news.”

One conference attendee was skeptical of Duplessie’s grand storage vision. It’s one thing to present storage as a utility, but another to convince companies to buy in.

“The problem is, you need a big investment to get there,” said Mark Morsi, IT operations manager with Markham, Ont.-based DMTI Spacial Inc., a geospatial software producer. “You can’t do it by spending ‘X’ amount of dollars. You have to spend 10 times that to get to that view.”

However, complexity is part and parcel of data storage technology, just as budget woes are synonymous with IT, said Brian Speed, a manager with iSERV Ontario, the province’s IT infrastructure arm. He added that complications should not frighten high-tech administrators away from striving for Duplessie’s storage utopia. It’s makes good business sense, so it’s worth fighting for.

“I think the idea is to get the total cost of ownership down,” Speed said, adding that companies would do well to consider seriously the storage-as-utility vision. “Over the next two years, the amount of data we’re going to need to store is as much as in the last 100 years.”

His advice: spend on storage now, or face the consequences later.