Sometimes it takes money to save money

The technology sector recession may be officially over, but that hasn't made it any easier for IT workers. In fact, IT staffing is "spread as thin as I've ever seen it," reports George Crump, Gulf Coast regional manager at systems integrator SANZ Inc. "Overwhelmingly, I see IT people stressed to the point of burnout, working harder and longer."

This isn't really surprising. Annual IT budgets are seeing growth this year, but only in the single digits, according to research firms IDC and Gartner Inc. Demand for computing and storage resources continued to rise during the recession, and now that rate is expected to accelerate. To top things off, federal regulatory compliance efforts are continuing to consume IT manpower and storage resources.

As a result, a lot of IT departments are in "spend-to-save" mode and looking for ways to trim the fat and better use existing computing and human resources. A major focus of such efforts is the storage network.

Just-in-time storage

Take Archipelago Holdings LLC. Two years ago, the Chicago-based stock exchange consolidated its storage capacity onto a shared, virtualized, networked storage pool of EMC Corp. and Hitachi subsystems. As a result, disk utilization rates doubled, according to Chief Technology Officer Steve Rubinow.

Archipelago now uses Veritas' SANpoint Control to track disk utilization, alert administrators when capacity is nearly used up and to locate unused capacity. In addition, Rubinow's group has implemented policies that evaluate how to properly store particular data, assess retention cycles and determine when a file needs to be moved to a cheaper storage medium, based on age, utilization patterns and business policies.

"We hadn't heard of hierarchical storage management or information life-cycle management at the time," Rubinow says. "We were just looking for prudent ways of managing existing storage on the SAN because we don't have unlimited resources."

Archipelago is far from alone. "What companies have mainly done in the past is build out for peaks in process and storage flow but not taken account of the valleys," Crump notes. "Now, many are moving toward a utility computing model that delivers computing and storage resources where they need to be, at the right time, and reallocating them when they aren't needed." In addition, they are beginning to look seriously at ILM as a means to conserve available resources and avoid over-provisioning.

What follows is a rundown of products and strategies that have helped large enterprises implement utility computing and ILM, and enabled smaller companies to cut costs and boost efficiency in their networked storage environments.

SRM tools come of age

The last couple of years have seen storage resource management (SRM) tools become more intelligent and more automated, with the ability to deliver intelligent analysis and respond automatically to threshold events and problems.

Such tools play a crucial role in effective operation and management of a storage utility, according to Bob Passmore, a research vice president at Gartner. Without automation, the human costs -- not just man-hours but also inevitable human error -- are too high, he declares.

According to Passmore, companies can cut way down on human administration costs and the cost of human error by turning over the gathering of raw data -- as well as the analysis and decision-making -- to policy-based, scripted software.

However, many IT executives hesitate to replace flexible human judgment with automated scripts. At Archipelago, for example, "we talk about doing automation all the time, but we like to have a person on the critical path to make a decision when something is triggered," says Rubinow. "Our storage environment isn't all that dynamic, so human intervention doesn't slow things down that much."

Rubinow's staff uses Veritas' SANpoint Control to monitor utilization levels, report when a disk or volume is near capacity, and locate unused capacity on the SAN. Then, administrators make the final decision on what gets allocated and where.

Another important development is growing industry support for standards like SMI-S and SNMP, which enable different storage tools and platforms to communicate and share information.

"CIOs tell me, 'I don't want more tools; I want integration of existing tools so I can cut down on man-hours and cost of acquisition,' " Crump says.

Serial ATA disks

Another important development in the area of ILM is the recent emergence of Serial ATA as a mainstream storage option. SATA devices are less costly and higher-density -- but slower -- than high-end Fibre Channel-attached storage subsystems. However, they are also faster and more reliable than tape drives.

"SATA is an important emerging way of making the storage environment more efficient and granular, by enabling administrators to allocate primary and backup capacity across not two but three tiers," says John Webster, president and founder of Data Mobility Group.

Crump conservatively predicts that by the first quarter of 2005 at the latest, SATA sales will outpace Fibre Channel sales.

Beyond server consolidation

Another promising network-based cost-cutting strategy is the thin-client model, which strips applications and data off the desktop, eliminates the local hard drive and consolidates everything on centrally managed networked servers and storage subsystems.

At Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, about 95% of employees now use the Sunray thin-client desktop system, says Sunray product manager Mason Uyeda. Moving applications and data -- particularly sensitive data -- from the desktop to the data center has meant huge savings in areas like security management, software administration and backup, Uyeda reports.

"We used to have an administrator pretty much on every floor in every building. Now we have about one for every 2,000 seats," he says.

Pay as you go

Budget-conscious companies are also exploring several versions of the pay-as-you-go model as a means of keeping down storage costs.

One strategy is to selectively outsource pieces or specific applications to a storage service provider. An example is hot backup for certain business-critical applications or for small, remote sites.

"We offer a utility model where you only pay for what you need," says Frank Brick, CEO of SSP Arsenal Digital Solutions. This helps customers keep capital and labor costs down. Furthermore, the shared outsourcing utility model makes high-end services and specialized expertise affordable to companies and remote sites that can't afford them on-site, Brick notes.

A slightly different take on the utility model, being offered by Hewlett-Packard Co., EMC, Storage Technologies Inc. and Sun, is metered storage. Sun, for example, announced a program this June in which companies pay two cents per megabyte per year for Sunstorage Power Units, which include hardware, software and services.

Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new storage subsystem when they run out of capacity, users just order more capacity from Sun and pay for what they use. If storage demands go down, they lower the amount. Sun's Highcommand software tracks utilization trends to ensure customers' provisioning levels stay abreast of demand.

The only catch: It is necessary to commit to a three-year contract and order a minimum of 30 terabytes. However, Sun plans to offer a midrange version in the near future.

Chargebacks

Implementing an internal chargeback system can help cut resource utilization, and therefore costs, by instilling cost consciousness in the user population. However, notes Webster, "You don't want to use chargeback as a sort of shield between the IT administrator and end users. You need to remain flexible and responsive to the demands of your user base."

Indeed, responding to user and business needs in a flexible and - above all - realistic fashion is the best way to keep a lid on costs, Crump says. "You need to ask yourself, 'Do I really need to monitor disk usage and capacity in real time all the time, or will periodic snapshots do?' You need to weigh the cost of data loss against the cost of ensuring against that loss."

Indeed, "just enough" is a good rule to follow not only in conserving storage network resources but also in choosing a strategy for conserving resources. Companies can realize major savings without implementing a sophisticated, all-encompassing storage utility or ILM architecture. Just ask Archipelago's Rubinow. "We tried to keep it simple, because even doing simple economies on the SAN gives you a huge payback," he says.

Elisabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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