Storing Stuff

All end users have lots of different stuff on their computers. And data storage managers should have a plan for every bit of it. Sounds simple. But it's not. If anything, it's getting more complex, maybe to the breaking point, beyond where IT can have a semblance of control of its total corporate storage environment.

Before you can claim to know what your data storage environment is, you need to know where all the information is going. Wouldn't that fall under the vague and menacing Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which calls for having "internal control over safeguarding of assets against unauthorized acquisition, use or disposition. ..."? Yet, how can CIOs seriously tell their bosses that they have full knowledge, let alone control, over who stored what corporate data where? People load contact lists onto iPods, they file sales-letter templates on Windows mobile handhelds, they save sensitive e-mails on BlackBerry devices, and they keep who-knows-what on laptops. Some of these devices are issued by the company. Most are not. Some store only data defined by IT policy. Most store all that information and much more. This is control?

It's not a very funny situation. But the best way to understand the scope of the problem is to take a lesson from one of George Carlin's comic routines, "A Place for My Stuff." (For those of you who have forgotten the monologue, here's a Web site with a refresher: www.writers-free-reference.com/funny/story085.htm.)

Carlin starts off by observing that a house "is just a pile of stuff with a cover over it." Then he says when you go on vacation, you pack some suitcases. "You gotta take a smaller version of your house," he says. "It's the second version of your stuff." As he progresses through the long gag, Carlin talks about how we use increasingly smaller and smaller containers for our stuff, until he gets down to the stuff we can, um, stuff into our pockets.

Carlin's containers for his "stuff" are analogous to the modern end user's data repositories in today's business. People are more than willing to carry less stuff in order to be mobile. But they definitely need at least some of their stuff. So, the best storage managers should try to accommodate how people want to tote it around.

That means you need to offer multiple ways for end users to store mobile data. One size doesn't fit all. (Seven different iPod configurations, from 500MB to 60GB in capacity, seem to bear this out.) Whether it's the BlackBerry 7270 of today or the upcoming Nokia 770, powerful, high-performance, high-capacity mobile devices are proliferating among your end users and outside of IT's purview.

As Frank Hayes wrote in "Got Gadgets?" five years ago in these pages, you can't win against the tide of faster, cheaper, better mobile units with increasingly capacious storage systems. Don't fight it. Frank's advice is to recognize who the gadget freaks are and help them with their new toys, especially when they want to connect them to corporate data stores on the network. He says spending a little time with these people upfront is better than having to clean up their messes later.

Frank's advice made perfect sense five years ago, when, as he wrote, you were dealing with Handsprings, Jornadas, Cassiopeias and other carcasses in today's mobile market. And it's still sound advice today. But I think it could use a little tweaking.

Today, you have to let end users carry their stuff on the device of their choice. Whatever it is. Don't try to create a corporate standard. There's no point. (Besides, whatever you put in their pockets today is the Cassiopeia of 2007.) Whatever you invest in will be superseded many times over by the time your chief financial officer lets you fully depreciate and upgrade the devices.

No, don't regulate the device; regulate the data-collection process. In the first place, the data is what it's all about, not the thingamajig. And since it's unlikely you can stop people from doing what comes naturally with their stuff, you need to persuade them to share it with you.

Here's what I suggest. Start a contest at work. Have people bring in any and all devices that they've stored company data on -- cell phones, PDAs, thumb drives, everything. Have prizes for the most devices, the oldest device, the most data stored, the least. Whatever. Lots of prizes. Good ones, too, like iPod Nanos.

Take the devices and download the corporate data from all of them. Give them back to your end users. Hold the contest every year. You'll be doing the company a favor and making friends in the process.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

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Battling Complexity

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