Opinion: Storage hierarchies

One thing we can all agree on regarding hard times: They make you appreciate what you have.

Take February’s Storage Management Conference 2002 in Chicago. Gone was the expansionist mentality of years past, when the easiest way to solve a storage problem was to simply throw more capacity at it. Instead, show attendees took on the air of conservationists, concerned about their storage resources and determined to make the most of them. Even tape storage is quickly returning to vogue as a component of a not-so-new idea called HSM (hierarchical storage management).

Unlike the every-byte-is-sacred mantra that closed a slew of high-dollar storage array sales during the past few years, HSM operates under the assumption that not all stored data needs to reside on a tier-one storage system.

With HSM, infrequently used data is taken off the pricey EMC Corp. Symmetrix box or the IBM Corp. Shark system, and dropped on to less expensive storage disk arrays. Data that is rarely touched is stored on tape. HSM does not change a company’s backup, restore, or data mirroring policies, but simply melts away a residual dot-com era belief that throwing money at a storage problem is a sure fix.

But alas, the key word in the term “storage business” is still “business.”

“How is a storage buyer supposed to know he has the option of cheaper storage systems next to the expensive ones if his sales rep never tells him?” asked Gene Quickle, director of product development at Global Information Distribution Inc., an information management solutions company in Plano, Texas, while attending Storage Management 2002. As did others, Quickle complained that he constantly hears tales of storage sales representatives up-selling customers into high-dollar storage arrays when middle tier storage systems or even tape storage would suffice.

“Can’t blame them really,” said Quickle of the storage sales reps. “Times are tough for them, too.”

And times may be getting tougher for storage managers, thanks to the march of legal regulations such as HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), and the expected fallout from the document shredders at Enron and Andersen.

Fears that some legal audit trail may lead to archived data that may have been degraded on a four-year-old tape cartridge takes us back to the idea of HSM with renewed emphasis on the basic question: What data within an organization can ever again be considered “less important”?

Inexpensively archived data can be corrupted by as much as 20 per cent during a long period, according to Jon Toigo, an independent industry consultant and speaker at Storage Management 2002. Thus the hidden danger of HSM, Toiga said. “If you’re being sued for malpractice, and you retrieve an old file of an X-ray and suddenly there’s a dark spot on the lung, that’s big trouble.”