Making space

As information storage becomes more critical to organisations, IT managers are rising to the complex task with solutions and innovative practices.
Making space
By Sean Robson
Sun 14 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

As information storage becomes more critical to organisations, IT managers are rising to the complex task with solutions and innovative practices.

The Middle East is a region where explosive growth is almost a given and nowhere is this more apparent than in the data that is being created in the enterprise space.

IT managers, already under fire from all angles, are staring the issue of storage in the datacentre right in the face and they dare not blink. A host of new technologies and solutions are at hand, but before they begin acquiring and implementing them they will need to take a close look at their current circumstances.

Virtualisation is very important for the region as it provides much needed space and data can be easily replicated for disaster recovery. The technology also enables data to be centrally managed.

"We need to examine things from two separate views, in terms of new datacentres and then in terms of existing datacentres. Previously the attitude had generally been one of acquiring a lot of space, purchasing servers and storage, installing the apps and seeing what happened. However, many large enterprises are proving more receptive to the idea of strategic planning," says Omar Dajani, senior manager, systems engineering at Symantec.

Nevertheless, Dajani continues to observe enterprises that still struggle with planning for capacity requirements and fail to anticipate the large amounts of data that they would be required to store or the rate at which the data increases.

Tony Ward, general manager and sales director MENA and Turkey, Hitachi Data Systems agrees in part with Dajani. "Its improving as Middle East enterprises begin to invest in upgrading and developing the storage systems within their datacentres. CIOs are recognising the need for advanced storage solutions."

Although vendors are uniquely placed to influence the storage environments of the region, it is the CIOs and IT managers who are on the front lines of the battle to manage data.

"It's obvious that robust storage is critical to any organisation. The exploding growth and increasing compliance requirements are big challenges. An added challenge is the cost of connectivity in the region. The high cost makes it very expensive for your average organisation to back-up online or mirror its data to a disaster recovery site," says Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director, Leo Burnett.

"We are being faced with growing data sizes and the failure of businesses to predict and inform IT departments about the data type, usage and the size they will have to cope with. Storage manufacturers are also changing the roadmap for the support of disk enclosures and supported disk types, which is creating yet another problem," weighs in Sujin Balakumaran, IT manager at Waha Capital in Abu Dhabi.

The status quo

Users are making the most of the plethora of choices now available to them, as the battle for storage intensifies in the region.

"We've recently implemented Symantec Net Backup and Enterprise Vault, which are helping us tremendously with policy based archiving and as an integrated back-up solution. De-duplication keeps the utilisation rate high. I also make use of iSCSI for a handful of SAN connected servers," describes Aboukhater.

"We have moved to centralise our storage solution in the datacentre for our own enterprise use. We use a Hitachi network solution for our Linux environment and an HP solution for the enterprise environment," says Mohammed Sabunchi, director of IT infrastructure, Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).Some users are still in the planning stages of addressing the growing storage needs.

"We are planning to implement a storage system which can support the dynamic growth and also provide backward compatibility for new ranges of disk enclosures and disks. The system should be capable of handling dynamic volumes and different types of disk technologies," says Balakumaran.

Meanwhile, the region's vendors are touting a number of products and solutions to alleviate the growing storage hassles facing datacentre managers.

"What HP has seen is that in most cases end-users are choosing to adopt network storage solutions. These include storage area networks or network attached storage. This is the first condition to achieving consolidation and virtualisation. Customers want storage consolidation and following that they have issues like compliance and disaster recovery to deal with," says Stephen Wolf, business development manager for StorageWorks, HP ME.

Antoine Aguado, regional director ME, Citrix systems notes, "There are a number of choices out there and the kind of storage solution a customer picks up really depends on their actual size, specific level of IT maturity and the relative storage requirements of their applications."

"Virtual or thin provisioning is an increasingly popular solution. You can optimise storage capacity through thin provisioning, customers can present their end-users with more than twice the physical storage capacity, and at the same time reduce the cost and space required for the capacity," says Said Akar, pre sales manager MENA, EMC.

De-duplication is another technology that is fast gaining traction  in the region, and many enterprise users, like Aboukhater, are using the technology to keep utilisation rates high.

A virtual 'storage' world

One technology that comes up over and over in discussions regarding data storage is that of virtualisation.

"Virtualisation is not a new technology. That is a major confusion that some vendors are perpetuating with customers. It is now about different offerings to different needs. There is no doubt that its very important in optimising the customer infrastructure especially in datacentres, which see a lot of migrations and a lot of changes requested," says Akar.

"We are seeing users now beginning to bite because there has been confusion on the definition of virtualisation. Maybe the one definition that people by and large agree on is the fact that you have a layer (in this case virtualisation), which gives you visibility on your storage assets," says Dajani.

He explains that in terms of virtualising storage capacity what is effectively being done is pooling of storage resources. "Once all the storage is pooled together, you can then draw from it as one big reservoir," he explains.

"In our experience, datacentre managers have been virtualising their storage resources for several years ahead of the server virtualisation curve. Storage managers are accustomed to storage virtualisation and have adopted it in very large numbers," comments Khalid Khalil, regional sales manager for CEMA at Brocade.

Many industry experts disagree with Khalil, especially when it comes to the scenario in the Middle East. While users in the region seem more or less aware of the advantages of virtualisation, adoption has not been as widespread as may have been expected.

"We don't have any virtualised storage as I don't yet believe the available technology has matured to the extent to which it would be of value to our current storage requirements.  However, virtual storage is something on the agenda for the next time we invest in storage. I believe that as the technology continues to mature it will slowly become mainstream for mid-size and large organisations," says Aboukhater.

The lack of widespread adoption of virtualised storage in the Middle East is a result of a number of factors. Many organisations still do not deal with the excessive amounts of data that make virtualisation necessary.CIOs across the region remain slightly sceptical of the current technologies and are playing a waiting game before making a substantial investment.

"The amounts of data that we currently have to deal with do not require us to move to a virtual storage solution. I do not anticipate needing to implement it for at least another five years," explains Waha's Balakumaran.

However, some users are beginning to experiment with it and implement it in different degrees.

"Virtualisation is very important for the region as it provides much needed space and data can be easily replicated for disaster recovery. Virtualisation means that data can also be centrally managed. We have introduced it and it has proved a valuable investment," says Sabunchi.

"To some degree we have implemented virtualised storage but not to the extent we would like. One that we have already implemented is the distributed file system which helps virtualise file share for our users. Virtualisation clearly has a lot of benefits but needs to be balanced," says David Riley, CIO, Foundry Networks.

Bumps in the road

In spite of all the technologies and solutions available, including virtualisation, end-users still face a number of real challenges to their data storage environment.

"The demand for storage increases each year due to the fact that new generation systems are being launched largely by software vendors. As a result, hardware vendors have to try and catch up. From an IT perspective it is difficult to play constant catch up, and keep up in terms of issues like migration, expansion and back-up," says Sabunchi.

"End users need to be better educated on the role they can play in storage. Awareness on what to store and what not to store is a big problem in this region. People try to store personal digital content on company data volumes. This can be controlled by standards and policies."

"Many customers prefer a single vendor approach for service and storage but soon discover that they need to have multiple vendors for multiple storage appliances and solutions. They are now moving away from the single vendor approach and taking on vendors specifically focused on storage," says Akar.

"Vendors do not always educate the end-users properly in terms of the available solutions that fit these customers exact service level needs. This is sometimes where we face pricing issues, wrong solutions positioned with customers where the user is failing because the vendors create confusion between things like mid-range and high end storage solutions," Akar continues.

Storage purchasing trends1. Vendors will offer more high-value services:Storage vendors will begin to focus on consulting, project management and managed services, leaving the basic services of fixing hardware to partners and third-party providers.

2. Vendors will push self-service storage:This will require CIOs to define the roles of staff members who have to deal with these self-service technologies.

3. The storage service industry will consolidate:IBM, EMC, Sun Microsystems and Symantec have all acquired storage service companies in recent years.

4. Warranties will erode:Vendors are offering tiered warranties, for which CIOs can spend a premium if they wish to preserve that high-end warranty.

5. Vendors will move to business-based service pricing:This trend sees end-users pay service providers a fee that it coupled to the business rather than to the use of IT infrastructure.

SOURCE: Gartner, 2007

Hitachi's Ward believes that in many cases the obstacles to data storage are prevalent in older datacentres.

"Often times the damage has been done already as enterprises in the past tried to build a datacentre piece by piece, without a consolidated approach. As growth increased and the amount of data increased exponentially, businesses purchased and installed low-cost storage solutions as an immediate remedy, but the apparent price does not always equal actual cost."

A growing awareness

Despite the challenges and obstacles that face end-users in terms of adopting and implementing sophisticated storage solutions there is no doubt the enterprises are reacting with purpose to the growing need for efficient and increased storage of information across the company.

"When you look at major metropolitan areas like Dubai, growing your datacentre in terms of space is not an option. Because of this lack of available physical resources companies are deploying technology and setting up remote datacentres outside of the current datacentre," remarks Dajani.

"IT professionals understand the nature of business today and the ever increasing need to store large amounts of data, secure the data, make it available and accessible at all times to authorised users. Customers look for storage solutions with higher throughput and security solutions for data at rest such as Brocade's new security offerings. Many customers also look at virtualisation and tiered storage to meet their availability and accessibility needs," says Khalil.

Wolf has also witnessed the growing emergence of customer awareness. "Customers are aware that just growing the storage is not always the answer and are looking increasingly to partners who are able to give them an all-encompassing view of storage. Previously storage was just a part of the IT budget, albeit a big part. But now what we are seeing is that storage has become more pervasive, not just in terms of storage networks but in terms of the complete IT function," explains Wolf.

CIOs and IT managers are introducing a variety of innovative methods to ensure efficient and effective storage across the Middle East.

"We have introduced a range of policies and methods including quota management on the user and group levels. We have also appointed data managers within departments and assign the responsibilities to initiate data cleaning procedures on a regular basis," says Balakumaran.

Sabunchi has divided his approach towards storage into two parts. "As a systems owner, I am educating users across the organisation on how much data they use and abuse, and advise them against storing personal data like videos and music. The second part is in terms of the environment. The systems are growing and require more space, and factors like cooling and power also need to be considered. We need to keep a constant eye on the future."

While approaches may differ and solutions vary one thing is clear, the growth in data will continue unabated. Users will have to grow increasingly more innovative in terms of how they manage their data, while at the same time keeping an eye on the overall IT goals.

Popular storage options

Disk arrays and tape:There is an increased interest in enterprise class storage solutions, and these range from disk arrays to organisation standard tape and back-up solutions.

iSCSI based appliances:Medium sized enterprises are investing in iSCSI based storage appliances due to their functionality and relative affordability.

Tiered storage solutions:These solutions assist enterprises in lowering capital and operational costs for storage infrastructures.

De-duplication:IT managers are not only able to reduce storage needs by eliminating redundant data but also save costs on disk expenditure.

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