Storage Hogs

The dreaded message came overnight: "System Monitoring Indicates That System Disk Space Is In Short Supply; Please Immediately Delete Unnecessary Files To Free Up Storage. Signed, Your NT System Administrators."

In the tradition long-established and honored by millions of users, I deleted the message without doing a thing.

After all, like everyone else, I need ready access to the files containing my 1996 NCAA Final Four predictions, an archive of lawyer jokes from the Internet, and old recipe columns from Martha Stewart’s early years. That’s why I was surprised to see our network administrator careen into my cubicle with a list of files I owned on local and server disks throughout our network.

"And what’s this?" she demanded as she pointed to my beloved collection of Christmas holiday e-mail greeting cards.

"Corporate relationship management files," I lied. "We use them to improve customer relationships at various times during the year."

Unimpressed, she threw the list in my lap and delivered an ultimatum: "Normal office workers here seem to manage with disk quotas of less than 4 GB. Why you should be different is a mystery to me. You have until midnight tonight -- when the archive process starts -- to get your utilization under control. Either you choose the files to delete, or I will." And with that she left to pounce on the next digital pack rat.

Once again, in the long tradition established by generations of users who can’t bear to delete e-mail messages last examined months ago, I went to my network administrator’s boss.

"Sure," he said, "I could allocate you more space, but you would fill it in a month. We don’t want to be the storage police, but you have to be reasonable: You users eat up disk space faster than a hungry bear eats berries after a winter’s hibernation. We need to be fair to everyone and than means a little bit of discipline on your part."

That’s when it hit me: All too often, discipline in shared storage management is simply crisis management. A worried technical staffer sees a utilization report, panics, then sends out the message that the sky is falling -- which, by the way, won’t fall as fast if you delete a few of your older files.

A better answer is a proactive approach. First, offer users a sensible allotment of storage and a matching system-wide storage policy. Make the storage policy as important as network utilization policy: Let the CEO sign the letter that puts the policy into place, not the CIO or the network administrator. Clearly define which types of files can be stored on servers and desktops, and how usage is to be audited. If my collection of MP3 files violates the policy, let me know and give me time to change my habits before I suddenly have to make unpleasant decisions in a hostile environment.

Next, use automated tools so thresholds can be set on space allotments by user, group, or department. If a user is coming close to allotments, don't wait until disk utilization is at crisis levels. Instead, use the automated tools to help each user manage the space they are allocated in an intelligent way. In fact, use automation to build messages or Web pages that automatically allow users to find the files to be archived or deleted. Make storage management a part of the daily responsibilities of employees, not an unexpected and unwelcome task to be carried out in crisis mode.

Finally, make sure the IT and user communities work together to build sensible storage management policies. Disk quotas delivered unexpectedly from on-high are likely to get the backlash they deserve. Instead, use storage policy development as an opportunity to build cooperative network policies. IT organizations -- whose only interest is trends in allocations over time -- might not understand the mechanics of sending large CAD files between engineers. A cooperative approach to building storage policy, with the support and understanding of management, is more likely to have the intended effect than a policy simply executed at the panicked behest of an IT organization.

An effective storage policy can be a dream come true for system administrators hoping to bring storage utilization back to reasonable levels. It can also have an effect on budgets: When storage is managed proactively through a combination of policy and automation, disks don’t have to be acquired as quickly. The result may make everyone -- except for the most recalcitrant space hog -- happy. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at