Squeezing More Stuff into Less Storage Space

The economy has slowed, but data growth certainly hasn't. Our expert offers 10 tips to help you squeeze the most from your enterprise storage investment.

In these days of budgetary belt-tightening, maybe it's a good time to grab a cup of coffee, settle back, put your phone on "do not disturb," and reread some of those dusty books on strategies for doing more with less.

Managing storage costs seems to be at the top of everyone's list—and for good reason. While corporate funding for purchases of storage hardware and software may have slowed, data growth has not. Like the Energizer Bunny in the TV commercials, upward trend lines for data acquisition just keep going and going and going.

Incredibly, some analysts claim that as much as two-thirds of IT budgets are now allocated to data storage and its management. The high cost reflects two basic facts:

  • Many companies have made tactical rather than strategic storage acquisitions over the years, resulting in hard-to-manage storage "infrastructures" consisting of a hodge-podge of trendy products.
  • Labor costs are increasing, especially for staff with some savvy in networked storage technologies.

With no "silver bullet" solution available for mounting storage costs, the question remains: What practical steps can managers take to contain storage costs while delivering the best services to corporate applications and end users? Here are ten tips to help you contain the high cost of storage.

Gather Some Data. The simple truth is that many organizations have no idea how quickly data is growing or what kinds of data are showing the greatest growth. Get a report from system or storage administrators (in many organizations, the former actually do most of the storage administration) on current capacity and utilization. Then implement a routine reporting process that will help you plot storage growth. Ideally, have the report categorize data so that its association with specific applications can be discerned. The finer the granularity of the report, the more useful it will be to you as you seek to optimize your storage.

Establish a Labor Cost Metric. Get information on labor costs associated with storage by asking each system or storage administrator to estimate how much time is spent in an average business day on storage administration. Do the math to determine what this effort means in terms of labor costs. This is an important metric that will indicate the efficacy of any storage cost optimization efforts you decide to try.

Check Your Downtime. One big storage-related cost is downtime, whether planned or unplanned. Keep records that track the duration and associated labor costs of downtime events. Average the numbers on a weekly or monthly basis to create another useful metric.

Set Objectives. State objectives in performance language, clumsy though it may seem, so that everyone understands what you're after. Here's an example: "Given a need to create more storage space on XYZ storage platform to accommodate the growth of database ABC for the next six months, which is growing currently at a rate of X percent or X gigabytes monthly, we will implement the strategy, product or policy within six months, which will provide X gigabytes of reclaimed space and reduce administration costs by Y dollars."

Performance language provides conditions for performing a task, a statement of the task itself and standards for measuring completion of the task. Once you have a list of objectives written in this language, you have a better chance of getting both staff and corporate bean counters on the same page.

Use Policies Where Possible. Unlike storage products, policies don't have associated purchase orders. Try to address as many storage issues as possible through policy, but ensure that you have management's support before you impose any draconian measures. For example, you may be able to reduce end user-related data growth by limiting the volume of storage available in a given month to an end user or department. Establish a charge-back system, using management costs as a guide, to discourage storage abusers. Also, establish policies covering such things as Internet downloads; prohibit JPEGs, MPEGs and MP3 multimedia files that burn through storage capacity and are irrelevant to the work of most businesses.

Storage Planning Is Like Budgeting

In a sense, storage planning is similar to personal financial planning and budget making. A financial advisor will tell you that you need to know your monthly mandatory outlay (capacity requirements and labor costs) and your average monthly discretionary outlay (planned downtime) in order to create a baseline budget. In addition, you'll probably be advised to hold some income (assets) in a reserve fund or contingency fund, as a hedge against unforeseen expenses (unplanned downtime, sudden capacity demand spikes, etc.).

In some organizations, particularly those in which storage is poorly managed (or not managed at all), upwards of 50 percent of storage capacity is maintained as a "reserve." This kind of hedging would quickly bankrupt you in terms of personal finance, and it's no less misguided as a storage strategy. It's usually based on some past experience in which inadequate capacity was available at some critical point, costing the company downtime, bad press or missed opportunities. If such reserve capacity has been set aside in your infrastructure, ferret out the rationale and determine if it has technical merit.

Also, look carefully at data replication. Various tools are available to show what files are replicated where. Some replication strategies are valid; others may be holdovers from earlier application requirements and may no longer be necessary.

Finally, select a storage resource management (SRM) software package to perform a "stale file" inspection of your file-based storage. Determine whether rarely accessed files need to be retained on disk or can be offloaded to tape or deleted altogether. In the recent past, one SRM software vendor approached prospective customers with the proverbial offer that they couldn't refuse: "Deploy our software. If we can't free up a certain percentage of storage capacity for productive use, uninstall our product. However, if we can return a certain percentage of storage capacity to productive use by identifying stale and replicated files for deletion, keep the software. What you pay us in licensing fees will be more than offset by your gains." Given the glut of vendors peddling software in the SRM space, you may be able to get a vendor to give you a similar deal. You have nothing to lose but unwanted files and improperly used disk capacity.


Target Problems, Not Symptoms. The problem with cost of ownership analyses is that they are hammers that make everything look like a nail. Sources of high storage costs need to be carefully considered to determine whether the cost is a symptom of another problem or a problem in itself. For example, frequent downtime in a particular application and its storage components may be a reflection of poor architecture (storage is inadequately provisioned for the application), misbehaving software (the software misuses its storage) or a lack of proper administration staff skills. Before you spend money to reconfigure the application hosting platform or its storage components, make sure you're addressing the root cause.

Follow Standards Where Meaningful. In selecting storage gear, choose products that adhere to meaningful standards. Many standards, especially in the SAN space, remain pretty half-baked and do not guarantee interoperability between "standards-compliant" products.

Numerous products are shipping today that claim to be compliant with standards that don't even exist yet—you would be better served today with products that demonstrate interoperability. Better yet, make your vendor, reseller or integrator test and demonstrate the interoperability of anything you are thinking about deploying—before you buy it.

Homogeneous Now, Heterogeneous Later. The idea of a fully interoperable, but heterogeneous storage infrastructure has the dual appeal of preventing vendor lock-ins while enabling organizations to capitalize on best-of-breed products from the broadest possible array of vendors. The fact is that current generation storage vendors don't work and play well together. For the time being, if data is burgeoning and acquisitions can't be put on hold, consider homogeneous platforms from reliable vendors. Comfort yourself with vendor statements about product roadmaps that embrace standards and interoperability in the future, but don't take them too much to heart.

Get the Right Tools. The recognition of storage management costs has driven a proliferation of products in the field that claim to automate storage administration from the block level to the business process level that storage supports. The fact is that most of these boasts are unfounded because most storage management products are limited to a certain set of functions, a certain number of platforms or a certain type of storage topology or array.

While waiting for storage management framework nirvana, you should identify an assortment of point products that do certain tasks very well. A number of vendors offer specific tools for accomplishing specific tasks in an effective way. Most of these support high level "integration" with a management framework (like an HP OpenView), but they don't require such integration.

Check with integrators and technical maintenance and support groups for advice about which products work, which don't and what limitations exist. Then, buy only what you need rather than "suites" of products.

Manageability Comes First. The No. 1 criteria that should guide your storage product acquisitions isn't scalability, performance or accessibility—it's manageability. Find out how the storage product is instrumented for management to ensure that it can be included into whatever storage management system you choose to build over time. Avoid products that offer only a homegrown or proprietary configuration-and-status-monitoring application. Products that articulate Web pages to handle configuration and management are only slightly superior. Those instrumented for administration via Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) or the Common Information Model (CIM) Object Manager are the best choices.

Keep in mind that, while it will be some time before storage services are delivered from some ubiquitous storage network-based "pool" or "utility," storage management will always be a source of pain and expense. Buy products designed to make your life easier, not more difficult.

The bottom line is that you can guide your enterprise through numerous steps today that will help you gain control of your storage infrastructure. You can realize the greatest return from your storage investment while working to define a strategic storage plan for the future.