What's The Future for Storage in Europe?

No, we're not in Kansas, anymore…..but where will European-based IT end up in the years to come?

Dateline: Lisbon, Portugal. Continuing my training/speaking tour, I traveled from South Africa to Portugal, where the topic was data protection and disaster recovery/business continuity from a data management perspective.

Nestled in between two Portuguese holidays, end-user attendance at the event was light but “consultants” representing services organizations from Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and others were there in full force. It was interesting having them as students, but it was truly illuminating talking to the representatives from the southern European IT shops.

After a couple of days, the technology consumers in the room were talking openly about their storage issues, IT issues generally, and their views of the future. They made it clear that many—perhaps the preponderance of—European companies seemed hell-bent on outsourcing these days. In one fellow’s view, mainland Europe may shortly mimic in IT what it has already begun doing in agriculture: namely, establishing geographic enclaves on the Continent where certain types of work are done.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a German representative of Legato a couple of years ago while driving to a customer event they were hosting near the Austrian border. When I asked the gentleman about what was being planted in the orderly fields that made a patchwork quilt of the picturesque countryside zipping by our car's window, he became visibly angry. He reported that farm land outside Munich was going fallow because the government had paid farmers not to plant or grow there. Such incentives were intended to migrate certain types of farming to more agrarian countries in the European Union, to enable someone’s idea of a more rational use of local skills and economic capabilities.

The situation had my colleague hot under the collar because it rubbed against the attitudes of many in his country who had always strived to make the most productive use of even the smallest parcel of arable land. German farmers were, in his view, being paid to act in a manner that was contrary to their national character.

Now, I was hearing essentially the same thing, albeit from practitioners in a different country (Portugal) and in a different industry (IT instead of agriculture). The techs from the Portuguese bank explained that IBM had been allowed to purchase the data center of a large commercial banking concern in Portugal a year or two ago, and they were now using it as an outsourcing center—linked to larger facilities in Germany. To the IT people, the handwriting was on the wall: shortly, Germany would become the IT center and large outsourcing entities such as IBM Global Services would gut the IT departments of all but the largest European firms.

The students saw this as inevitable, and maybe in Portugal’s case, for the best. They said that Portugal had an enormous Achilles’ heel in the form of a centralized and monopolistic telecommunications and network-services company, PT Telecom. As a result, wide-area network services were extraordinarily expensive and disaster recovery/business continuity strategies, such as long distance electronic vaulting and array mirroring, which are increasingly commonplace in the U.S., were priced out of reach (or were simply unavailable) in their world.

Even Brazil, they noted, has a more robust and diverse telecommunications infrastructure, providing “a better foundation for business-technology operations.” Lacking any sort of cost-effective networking services, the IT folks could not conceive how Portuguese businesses could compete on the world stage. They grudgingly offered that it might be better to outsource all IT operations to a part of Europe that was better served by the necessary support infrastructure for high tech. Presumably, this would be Germany.

What struck me during the discussion was the clearheaded acceptance of reality: like it or not, the absence of necessary infrastructure services was forcing the outsourcing decision. There was simply no alternative. All of the claims about the purported benefits of decentralized computing infrastructure, of networked systems and storage, both operationally and as a hedge against a disastrous interruption in normal access to data, were moot if there was no network.

Conversely, the supposed advantages of SANs—their purported (but largely unrealized) ability to rationalize storage cost of ownership, while at the same time enabling the consolidation of server resources and software licenses and making fewer personnel more productive—were purely speculative in the minds of the Portuguese students. They surmised (quite correctly) that SANs were an indulgence of large enterprises in countries with “First World-class” networks that could be leveraged to provide distributed users with efficient access to centralized data repository. Such architecture was simply not justifiable in their technical or economic reality. They took some consolation when I told them that most large companies weren’t realizing the promised value from their SANs, whether they had cheap broadband nets or not.

The experience gave me a new appreciation of U.S. telecommunications infrastructure and of the opportunities it enables to develop diverse solutions to just about any technology challenge. It also underscored for me how network technology can provide a foundation for storage strategies that contribute to top-line growth, bottom-line efficiency, and overall risk reduction for businesses on the one hand, or, on the other, set the stage for wasteful and inefficient storage marketecture-based strategies.

We could all take a page from the Portuguese business IT decision-makers when looking for clear-cut distinctions between the two alternatives. Your comments, as always, are welcomed. jtoigo@toigopartners.com

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.