Storage focus is on long-term view: conference

The days when users would buy new storage technology based on things such as improved data backup speeds or immediate cost savings have passed due to the softening economy. Now, companies are focusing on total cost of ownership and the long-term returns that storage investments can bring.

That was one of the messages imparted in Palm Desert, Calif., on Tuesday to more than 2,000 attendees at the Storage Networking World conference. Speakers and users at the event, which is co-sponsored by Computerworld, also voiced concern that industry standards needed to speed emerging storage technologies to market aren’t being developed quickly enough.

Jeff Kizlik, a senior systems engineer at Best Buy Co. in Eden Prairie, Minn., said the electronics retailer in February completed the installation of a storage-area network (SAN) that backs up 6TBs of data on a daily basis. But, Kizlik added, the conference “opened my eyes” to the fact that the network was an investment – not just a technology purchase. “When we get back, we need to think about the future a little more,” he said.

Most of the half-dozen users and vendor executives who spoke here Tuesday agreed that using the Internet Protocol (IP) to transport data between storage devices should eventually reduce costs because most companies already have TCP/IP-based intranets in place, along with IT staffs that are well-versed in the networking technology.

And several vendors took advantage of the conference to unveil IP-based storage products. For example, networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. detailed its first storage-related device, a storage data router that works on IP networks. Meanwhile, San Jose-based Brocade Communications Systems Inc. announced a Fibre Channel switch that it said will also be able to support both IP and InfiniBand networks.

Interoperability between different storage vendors was another big topic at the conference. Saying that: “simplicity drives the cost of ownership down,” Dan Warmenhoven, CEO at Network Appliance Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., told a crowded hall that vendor-to-vendor interoperability is currently a “minimalist solution.”

Gary Fox, a senior vice president and director of enterprise data storage at First Union Bank in Charlotte, N.C., advised attendees to simply steer clear of mixed-vendor environments for the time being. Users should keep their storage networking architectures as simple as possible by using homogenous switches, he said.

First Union recently installed a SAN to manage 58TBs of data related to the bank’s check-imaging service. The company was able to cut the number of tape storage devices it had in half as part of the project, Fox said, but he added that disk arrays were a different story because products from different vendors don’t operate well together.

Improved SAN management software was also high on the list of technology needs cited by users at the conference. Once it matures, they said, the software could help reduce storage costs by allowing automated pooling of resources and providing a single point for managing devices, data backups and disaster recovery procedures.

But John Webster, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said SAN management tools still have a long way to go before they’re perfected. That matches recent complaints by users that the software is unreliable and has thus far failed to live up to the hype that it’s being given by vendors.