Storage at your service?

We might pretend we saw it coming all along, but recent history proves that what looks like a great idea often turns out to be a huge flop. Network computers are a great example. Buzz just didn’t meet deployment reality.

Outsourced storage is another promising concept that never made a huge splash. The idea was to treat storage as a utility; like flicking on a switch for power or gas, you only pay for what you use.

The tale goes like this: The SSP (storage service provider) provides unlimited storage capacity straight to your wall outlet. After trucking all your storage devices to the trash heap, you would marry an SSP that would take care of your present and future storage needs, saving you a bundle in storage management costs, reducing your hardware investment, and allowing you to live happily ever after.

All that floor space presently occupied by storage devices would be replaced by a tiny box, linked via Fibre Channel or another fast connection to the SSP. You wouldn’t need to make hasty commitments to unproven storage technologies nor struggle to keep your data backup flowing.

Some vendors are still trying to push the storage service envelope. Most recently, managed service provider Loudcloud Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., announced subscription-based Storage Management Services 2.0, primarily aimed at boosting its Web site storage offering. At the same time, the company is flirting with the idea of bringing enterprise customers’ in-house storage under its control.

But there are good reasons why SSPs didn’t take off and even better reasons why new players should be careful. First, management is by far the most expensive aspect of owning storage. When outsourcing storage, you want to make sure you don’t throw away the baby (storage) and keep the bath water (management).

This brings us to the second major drawback to outsourcing storage, which is maintaining good performance. Disk access is the slowest link in your applications and the one that requires the most tuning and attention. Channel all your transactions on a single path and you create the potential for catastrophic traffic jams. Place storage miles away from your servers, and tuning and optimization activities become enormously more complex.

If those transactions are the bread and butter for your company, having to wait for the SSP and your developers to solve a performance dispute while your customers move to your competitors is not a good idea.

When it’s all said and done, if your storage cost projections won’t fit inside the budget, it may be time to consider outsourcing. Just remember that storage is not like a power utility: You can’t put miles between storage devices and business critical applications without hurting performance, because current bandwidth won’t make the grade.

E-mail Mario and Mark at[email protected]and[email protected].

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