Wrestling with the data management beast

As manufacturing firms create an ever-growing amount of information to be preserved on various sorts of high-tech storage media, it can be difficult for IT managers to keep apace, and ensure that their companies’ storage architectures can handle the creeping pile of bits and bytes. Alan Freedman, research manager, infrastructure hardware at IT consultancy IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, recognizes the problems that manufacturers face. He provided his thoughts on the bulging-data phenomenon in an interview with Stefan Dubowski, talking about the interoperability issues and storage challenges that manufacturers face, as well as a new way to best the data management beast.

IT Focus: Volume is the usual bear with data management. Are there others?

Alan Freedman: There are a couple issues we’re seeing. The first is volume. The second is interoperability and compatibility with existing systems. People are looking to capitalize on their existing systems. That is driving them to look at solutions like clustering and grids on the server side, and networked storage, mostly SANs (storage area networks), on the storage side. They’re trying to, if not physically consolidate their systems, then at least administratively consolidate their data resources. This way people have greater access to the data, it’s easier to administer, theoretically, and it should result in cost benefits and efficiencies. What’s holding them back, firstly, is purchase price. Companies are put off when they have to invest in new infrastructure equipment. Any type of capital expenditure is going to make them think twice about going forward with the plan.

You can’t just look at the initial implementation price. You have to look at what kinds of cost savings you’re going to have on the back end, what kinds of efficiencies you’re going to gain from this, and what kind of infrastructure you’re going to need going forward, after you’ve put together a more strategic storage implementation, as opposed to simply adding on direct-attached storage as emergencies occur.

IT Focus: What else keeps manufacturers from making data management-minded IT purchases?

Freedman: The other thing that’s holding them back is the lack of system management platforms that can span all of the different vendors that are playing together in corporate data centres these days. To their credit, vendors are working on this, but true interoperability is still down the road.

IT Focus: Do Canadian manufacturers spend more or less money on IT than do companies in other sectors?

Freedman: Looking at what people are spending their server dollars on, by workload, there are a couple of areas where manufacturing companies spend proportionally more than other verticals: for technical applications, and servers doing business processing, including things like ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management) — especially ERP. Manufacturing seems to be ahead of the curve in spending their IT budgets on ERP systems.

IT Focus: If that’s where manufacturers are ahead, are there any areas in which they’re lagging?

Freedman: They don’t seem to be disproportionately behind in any category. Some of the smaller areas that they are spending on include decision-support systems, like data warehousing and data mining, also application development. It’s less about custom applications for these companies, and more about packaged applications. That might also speak to the ERP aspect. Instead of developing in-house, they’re going to proven or tested applications.

IT Focus: Do companies understand the importance of integrating IT with business requirements?

Freedman: We are seeing a shift now towards aligning IT with business value. The main driver behind that is the budget restrictions. People are wary of any type of capital expenditure. They want to see how it’s going to affect business going forward if they’re going to make an outlay for IT resources. It’s less about speeds and feeds these days, and talking about the technology. It’s more about business requirements.

This really speaks to the vendors, the pressure being put on them to change their sales models to address these issues. We’re seeing that more and more vendors are realigning their internal organizations so they’re more customer-aligned and customer-facing, rather than focused on technology segmentation.

IT Focus: Can you provide an example of how vendors are adapting to particular business sectors?

Freedman: HP (Hewlett-Packard Co.), instead of having divisions based on the technology, now have a technology team based on technology, but the customer-facing organization is built on the customer segmentation: small and medium business, and vertical alignment as well. They’re able to design their products and promotions to more effectively target the critical issues and pain points that a particular customer set is facing.

IT Focus: Do the vendors have the wherewithal to speak to manufacturers knowledgably?

Freedman: Yes, especially the larger companies. They’re taking that very focus. They want to make sure that for every major vertical market in Canada they have a sales team, a support team and products tailored for that industry. They do have the capacity to speak to their customers in a knowledgeable way.

IT Focus: How do technology vendors ensure that they are speaking their customers’ language?

Freedman: The first thing they can do is communicate: ensure that they’re getting feedback from the customers, from the sales reps, ensuring that they understand the critical issues that are happening and the issues that are coming down the road, so they can be prepared.

IT Focus: Are you seeing that?

Freedman: Absolutely. The vendors can’t pretend to be aligning their business practices towards their customers’ issues if there is no customer feedback, customer summits, partner summits. That’s where they get the feedback from the street, where they can discuss wins and competitive bids where they lost, where they can do a self-assessment to see what they can provide more effectively the next time around. We are seeing a lot more customer satisfaction being built into compensation models. In that sense the feedback process is integral to the vendors’ operations. They have to have a good customer satisfaction model.

IT Focus: What do you think of this emerging data management term: information lifecycle management?

Freedman: ILM: I don’t think I’ve seen one term adopted by so many vendors so quickly. The first I heard of it, EMC was talking about it. Now it’s really across the board, anybody selling storage.

IT Focus: What is ILM?

Freedman: The idea is to have the most efficient handling of data from creation to deletion or archiving. It depends on a lot of policy-based automation. People tend to think of it as a hardware issue. But it’s really more of a software issue, how your information flows through the organization. This is where the policies come in. You can set up different timeframes for your data to move from one level to another. You have your most critical information on your most expensive, most secure storage media. As time passes and the information becomes less critical, it migrates to less expensive disks and finally to tape. It’s about capitalizing on the reduced price of storage media as you go down the line.

IT Focus: Is ILM simply vendor-speak, a way for storage equipment vendors to convince companies to spend more money on disks than they would have in the past?

Freedman: I don’t think of it as just a way for vendors to make money. I see it as a way for the vendors to become more ingrained in the process of their customers’ businesses. It’s not just about selling hardware. It’s about being a key component of the clients’ everyday operations.

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