Storage administrators demand simplicity

IT staffers at all levels are now tasked with managing data storage. They demand simplicity (but want power, too).

The torrent of data that threatens to overwhelm many corporate IT departments has driven demand for new types of storage technology. Storage managers aren't asking for ever-larger, ever-more-complex boxes like those that play leading roles in traditional marketing campaigns and vendor bragfests.

Storage managers need faster, higher-capacity hardware to keep up with volumes of data that nearly double every two years.

What they need even more, however, is simplicity.

"With budgets growing slowly and head counts actually going down a bit, the challenge eventually becomes, How do you manage 30% more data without 30% more budget or 30% more head count?" says Dick Csaplar, a virtualization and storage analyst at Aberdeen Group.

Aberdeen's research indicates that most companies have between eight and 18 storage specialists on staff, most with job descriptions that have been expanding for years.

"It's not enough to know which box in the warehouse has the tape with the data you need," says Csaplar. "You have to be able to run e-discovery searches and produce the data within strict time limits. That's a big change even with the same amount of data."

Simply storing, tracking and securing vast amounts of data is a challenge for any IT department, but the oceans of data are to blame only for the demand for storage space, not for IT's limited ability to deal with it, according to IDC storage analyst Ashish Nadkarni.

IT's real difficulty -- the lack of storage specialists and, ultimately, the need for simpler solutions to complex storage problems -- started with one of the biggest wins corporate IT has ever had: server virtualization, Nadkarni says.

Virtualized systems are more efficient than older equipment, and they changed IT in fundamental ways. Rather than having one group of specialists responsible for all the storage, another responsible for applications and a third for servers, Nadkarni says, responsibility for all three fell, usually, to a single administrator.

That change was so fundamental that it rippled throughout IT, forcing organizational changes designed to match what the company was trying to accomplish with virtual servers, virtual apps, mobile devices, cloud platforms and all the other follow-on technologies, Csaplar says.

"Ultimately, everything else has to get simpler because virtual-server admins don't have time to learn a lot of overly complex interfaces," Kerns says.

Finding Efficiency in the Cloud

IT found some of the simple efficiency it needed in the same technology blamed for at least part of the flood of data that is drowning IT: the cloud.

Discount travel website Kayak.com, for example, found that building file-sharing systems that its developers could use to exchange code, graphics and other files was far more complicated and troublesome than just handing the job off to Dropbox -- a Web service that has become the poster child for free, unmonitored consumer storage.

"We have the file servers and VPN and whatever else, so we could have just set up a file-share ourselves," says Bill O'Donnell, chief architect at Kayak. "It's less of a headache to use Dropbox than it is to provision a big RAID array in the server room and set up LDAP groups and work through issues with the VPN and answer calls from people in [the] Zurich [office] who hate using it."

Kayak uses the year-old Dropbox for Teams service, which acts as a central repository for teams of any size, keeping everyone up to date using Dropbox client software that automatically replicates any changes made on the service to whatever device a team member is using at the time.

The service costs $795 per year for five team members and $125 for each additional member. There is no limit on the amount of space they can use, but a Teams account starts with 1 terabyte of storage, according to Dropbox.

"Doing it ourselves would be time-consuming and frustrating, and Dropbox is pretty easy and people know we'll get those files onto their disks without their having to do much about it," O'Donnell says.

Dropbox for Teams encrypts data being transmitted across the Internet and gives administrators a simple interface that tells them which team members are logged in and from where. It can also link or unlink applications to data on the service and log all activity to give admins a simple view of everything at one time, according to Anand Subramani, product manager for Dropbox's Teams service.

Since early February, Teams has also supported two-factor authentication, which increases security by requiring not just a user's username and password but also a passcode from a separate device only the user holds.

Other cloud services are also adding business-friendly management features, but cloud-based storage has proved itself secure and reliable enough for many companies to use the same version that consumers use, according to Randy Kerns, a senior strategist at Evaluator Group, a storage consultancy.

"Information is leaking out everywhere -- mobile devices, personal cloud accounts, home devices, you name it," Kerns says.

That kind of "leak" and the decision to use cloud services aimed at consumers may look like red flags to traditional IT storage managers but are actually reasonable accommodations to both the needs of users and the reality of short-staffed IT departments, he says.

"People inside a company look for the simplest way to get something done, which has been a big force in cloud and mobile and other areas," Kerns says. "IT has had to react to that, so they're asking for ways to monitor who's doing what [and create] some kind of tracking for the data."

Cloud: Not the Whole Problem

Using the cloud for discrete functions like file sharing for a single department or SaaS application instead of one installed on-premises can make some storage issues easier to deal with. But that doesn't address the core problem, analysts say.

The difference in upfront capital expense is so great that Kayak would almost certainly house most of its software on Amazon's EC2 or other commercial clouds rather than the on-premises storage and Linux servers it uses now, O'Donnell says.

The tools available to configure storage networks and RAID arrays were "pretty heinous" in 2004 when Kayak was founded, O'Donnell says.

"It's getting better, though. Load balancers, the consoles to set up the arrays have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years," he says. "It's almost like consumerization: People get used to highly consumer-oriented user interfaces and very slowly the enterprise [vendors] are catching up."

The key to simple storage management isn't a series of point products or appliances, Nadkarni says. It's a set of abstraction and automation tools that allow nonspecialists to manage a company's storage resources with easily learned tools or interfaces.

EMC's FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering), for example, was designed to move data from expensive, solid-state drive (SSD) systems or high-performing disk arrays to less expensive media based on how often the data is used. Originally designed to work only with EMC's physical disk arrays, the system is now able to manage data for virtual servers and include all-SSD storage in its migration decisions.

"Efficiency comes from automation, and a lot of the automation is coming from things like FAST -- from storage optimization software from other vendors that allow storage to be easily managed without people having to deal with performance issues or spend hours moving data from one place or another," Nadkarni says.

Most of the big storage vendors talk as if they're more advanced than they actually are, however, Kerns says.

"The issue is more than just how to make things more user-friendly. They need to make the core functions of the whole information management infrastructure easier to access and easier to apply," Kerns says. That's exactly what EMC did last year when it adapted the popular software that controls its lower-end systems to also manage Symmetrix -- a high-end storage system with a reputation for being difficult to configure and manage, Nadkarni says.

IBM has done something similar by expanding its Tivoli Storage Manager into a storage-infrastructure system designed to cover storage from IBM and other vendors.

"The questions they have to ask are 'Can we do it quickly?' and 'Can we do it simply?'" Nadkarni says. "Virtualization created a huge shift in how storage is consumed and forced vendors to create automated workflows that permit provisioning from different platforms and offload some storage tasks to admins," Nadkarni says. But it may not be the big vendors that define the future of convenient enterprise storage, Csaplar says.

"There are so many startups out there doing innovative things much faster than the big vendors that the big guys [like IBM, HDS, EMC and NetApp] may not catch up without a lot of acquisitions," Csaplar says.

The limitation of startups is that their scope tends to be narrower than that of big vendors that aim to offer comprehensive storage infrastructure management systems rather than tightly focused, highly automated systems.

"If you look at Dropbox or a NAS vendors like Synology, or NetGear's ReadyNAS, they're coming at [storage management] from a different direction, almost coming from the bottom up to eat things like FAST and the other IT-focused things," O'Donnell says. "Synology started more as a home or small business thing, but that console is incredible. It's windowed, interactive, almost like a Windows system. You'd have killed to have it 10 years ago.

"The bar for how good a user interface or management system is has been raised, a lot," O'Donnell says. "The big guys will have to catch up."a

Fogarty writes about enterprise IT. You can follow him on Twitter (@KevinFogarty).

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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