About the only time we willingly think about storage is when we assess the closet space in a prospective house or apartment. The rest of the time, "out of sight, out of mind" pertains. That is doubly true of computer storage, which, while it may be essential to business, elicits about as much enthusiasm as a bout of spring-cleaning.
Yet something like spring-cleaning is going on in the stultifying realm of storage, and it threatens to elevate the mundane to the strategic.
Storage accounts for 70 percent of IT capital budgets, according to Steve Duplessie, founder of consulting firm Enterprise Storage Group. As businesses gather more data — some estimates show the amount doubling every nine months — that level of spending simply can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that most companies are wildly inefficient at using the storage they've paid for. Excess capacity abounds, but appropriate management tools do not. Often data is duplicated on multiple drives yet remains inaccessible to employees who might need it.
All those factors have inspired a near-revolution in storage. While today 90 percent of all data sits on conventional "direct-attached" drives, and only 10 percent resides on some sort of networked architecture, in just two years, according to Duplessie, the reverse will be true. This dramatic shift to networked storage schemes will be expensive, contentious, and, according to many, completely unavoidable.
"Some have already begun, and many more are looking into it," says Judy Britt, president of E-storm, an association of enterprise storage professionals, and media management coordinator for the IT division of an Ohio-based insurance company. "When we talk about creating a storage network," she says, "it's an issue that goes all the way up to the president of the company, because of the costs involved."
Britt and others say that the only way to contain costs and manage all that data efficiently is to move the data away from the applications that create or use it, into a central repository accessible by many. Two approaches currently dominate. Storage-area networks (SANs) do for data retrieval what conventional computer networks do for processing; they link disparate servers into a unified, sharable resource. Network-architected storage (NAS) deploys a specialized "appliance" that maintains a single file system across a wide range of computers. There are important differences between the two systems, touching off inevitable debates about which is best, but experts believe the two are complementary and will likely converge.
As storage moves to a networked environment, however, the task of managing it becomes more complex. Companies would like to have equipment and software from different companies interoperate, but while vendors have been pressured to drop proprietary standards in other realms of computing, storage makers are lagging. Many companies have decided to cope with this by designating one vendor as a "strategic provider" (80 percent now do so, according to a survey conducted by Forrester Research, compared with only 48 percent two years ago). Companies may also elevate an IT staffer to a more senior post, according to Duplessie, perhaps "VP of storage architecture" or something similar.
Budgets, however, are not elevating. While 60 percent of respondents see storage needs growing by at least 25 percent a year, Forrester found, only 36 percent of respondents are spending more, down from 40 percent in 1999. That may prompt a move toward outsourcing, according to Forrester analyst Galen Schreck. While all respondents rejected outsourcing two years ago, claiming that corporate data was too valuable to house elsewhere, only 48 percent feel that way today.
Some companies will find it easier to move toward networked storage than others, depending largely on the degree to which they've embraced open systems. At Galileo International (www.galileo.com), a Denver-based travel reservations firm, a substantial portion of the firm's more than 23 terabytes of data sits on legacy mainframe systems. The firm does have some SAN technology in place, and it is steadily moving toward a more fully networked system. But vice president of systems and operations Frank Auer says that "it will be evolutionary, for us and for many other companies, because despite the explosion in storage management software, moving data from one system to another can take months."
Market leader EMC (www.emc.com/storagenetworki ng/) now spends 70 percent of its R&D budget on software — one sign that storage is no longer simply about disk drives. The company made headlines in April when it lowered earnings estimates, but despite that disappointment the company saw storage revenue increase 37 percent, with networked storage and software sales soaring. Moreover, Compaq Computer's storage unit (www.compaq.com/storage/) is booming, IBM (www.storage.ibm.com) has shown renewed interest in the market with its Shark technology, and Sun Microsystems (www.sun.com/storage/) has bolstered its storage software offerings through its acquisition of HighGround Systems. Taken together, those developments suggest that storage has become not only more critical, but maybe even interesting.
Scott Leibs (ScottLeibs@cfo.com) is the technology editor of CFO.