Decluttered Data

Object-based storage brings order to dissimilar files.

Serving as a sort of boot camp for scattered data, object-based storage techniques thrive in organizations that need heavy doses of discipline both to appease hovering regulators and strengthen internal data retention and retrieval methods.

Here's how it works: Object-based archiving technology corrals disparate data files—documents, images, video clips or audio files—into content "objects" tagged with metadata to make the information searchable regardless of location. Also called content-aware or content-addressable storage, the technology is still in its infancy but is often hailed as a fast and easy way to pool and manage large data sets.

Right now, object-based archiving is most popular in heavily regulated sectors. Particularly drawn to the technology are health care and financial services organizations grappling with complex statutes such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's financial and accounting disclosure rules or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

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Simply Put

OBJECT-BASED STORAGE draws together disparate data files into content “objects.” Tagged with metadata, the data is searchable regardless of its location. But for now, the storage industry lacks standards for the technology.

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But the appeal of object-based storage is reaching beyond compliance. "Rapid adoption of this technology is likely among those corporations concerned with regulatory issues or those seeking self-imposed discipline," says Galen Schreck, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"This technology simplifies the application of policies, especially those governing the retention of data," he says. Schreck characterizes object-based storage as a promising alternative to "dumb" storage—network-attached storage technology, for instance—although the technology still lacks standards.

Indeed, the simplicity of technology is key, agrees Michael Peterson, president of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Strategic Research Corp. "Complexity is the No. 1 problem of enterprise storage efforts," he notes. "Fortune 1,000 companies can easily have 300 remote sites per company, and they have to start consolidating."

Management Benefit

Providers are hustling to convince corporate buyers of object-based storage technology's added value and ability to reduce complexity. "Compliance and legal discovery was a factor in selecting an object-based solution, but we found that it enhanced our ability to effectively manage storage," says Tom La Voie, Wintel support manager at Pacific Life Insurance Co. in Newport Beach, Calif., which uses EMC Corp.'s Centera Compliance Edition Plus.

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is another example of a company looking beyond regulatory issues. The Bronx-based nonprofit certainly needs to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley provisions. But IT executives at the NYBG eyed object-based technology to improve the storage of digital assets tied to its collection of 7 million dried plant specimens.

"Some of these specimens date to Lewis and Clark," says Josh Freeman, NYBG's IT director. To avoid shipping fragile specimens to botanical researchers, NYBG has built a vast digital library using the Electronic Museum (EMu) system from KE Software in Vancouver, British Columbia. But NYBG officials hedged on using EMu's internal storage capabilities. "KE is great software and a great database, but everything it stores, it stores according to its own process inside the application," notes Freeman.

Ultimately, NYBG settled on Archivas Inc.'s Archivas Cluster, which pulls together data stored throughout NYBG's architecture—for instance, on FireWire hard drives, in PDF files or on DVDs. "We now have one large pool. That has made life easier because we have fewer bins that we are dropping data in," Freeman says.

Good Samaritan Community Health Care in Puyallup, Wash., also decided not to commit to the storage options found in a single application. The facility recently adopted a picture archive and communications system to generate and manage large image and video files. "But we decided to design storage services separately," says Eric Lowe, Good Samaritan's technology and operations manager.

Using Permabit Inc.'s Permeon Compliance Store package, Good Samaritan was able to meet its need for massive storage capacity—a chest scan alone consumes 5MB to 10MB—and address the complex formulas the entire health care industry must employ for data retention. "For example, a chest CT scan must be kept for a minimum of 10 years, but in all pediatric cases, the files must be kept three years past the point at which the patient turns 21," Lowe explains.

For Lowe and others struggling with such data-retention mandates, object-based storage can make life easier, says Forrester's Schreck. "The technology simplifies the application of policies," he says. Plus, these systems impose hardware-level enforcement of the policies, Schreck adds.

Enforcement is critical, especially in sectors such as financial services. "For e-mails and other documents to be admissible in court, you must be able to prove that items have not been tampered with," says Richard Hall, group IT manager at Coda Financials Inc., a provider of accounting and procurement systems in Manchester, N.H. Coda uses Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Reference Information Storage System.

Whether it's to make a case in court or simply to shore up existing storage methods, object-based technology may well be worth a look.

Jones is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at jjwriterva@aol.com.

Special Report

Battling Complexity

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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