Managing storage requires tools and skills

Better use of existing resources and planning for future data growth are priorities for most organisations and there is now some sophisticated gear out there to help

It’s a simple equation: as data storage needs grow, so do storage costs. In fact, even as prices continue to come down, storage equipment now accounts for 19% of IT hardware budgets, according to a report from Forrester Research. And that figure doesn’t include costs such as energy and management.

“Disk might be cheap, but storing the increasingly high volumes of data that companies generate isn’t. It’s actually quite expensive,” says Forrester analyst Andrew Reichman.

And as the costs of physical space and energy continue to rise, storage efficiency will become a higher priority. Here are four tools that could help.

Solid-state disk/Flash technology

These are data storage devices that rely on non-volatile memory, such as NAND flash, rather than the spinning platters and mechanical magnetic heads found in hard disk drives. Vendors include Adtron, Samsung and SanDisk.

Until recently, solid-state disk found its home in niche markets where the need for speed outweighed cost concerns. But like other storage options, falling prices and technology advances have raised interest.

“Cost is always going to be the driver here,” says Dave Russell, an analyst at Gartner. “The cost is coming down and, to the extent that holds true, that is going to help the market really take off.”

That price drop has been steep: solid-state disk prices fell 66% in 2006 and are expected to drop another 60% this year, according to another Gartner analyst, Joseph Unsworth. Yet hard drives are still far cheaper, Unsworth notes and, because of that, deployments of solid-state disk have been limited, usually to specialised uses in industrial, military and aerospace organisations.

Solid-state disk has been around for well over a decade, says Mike Karp, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. It looks like a regular disk, but without the characteristic spinning motion. And because there are no moving parts, it’s faster, he says.

The use of NAND flash technology with solid-state disk could edge up the number and types of deployments, extending the technology beyond enterprise storage for use in laptops, for example. Unsworth estimates that solid-state disk with NAND flash technology could mean a 5-10% energy saving over a conventional notebook hard drive. It also offers faster performance in a smaller space.

“It could be important in ultraportable notebooks, but it’s not an advantage in desktop systems,” Unsworth says. “It’s still a very niche market because of cost. Right now, consumers and IT managers don’t know why they should pay a premium for such technology.”

High-density disks

As their name suggests, high-density disks can hold more data than conventional storage options. They do so by packing more bits into the same space, either by storing bits vertically instead of using the traditional horizontal pattern or by storing information using three dimensions, creating a hologram read by laser. Vendors include Seagate and Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

Higher density represents the next step in the evolution of storage, with perpendicular and holographic storage giving IT managers new options.

“They’re increasing the density per square inch, which to the end user increases the space and price efficiency of the solutions,” says Brian L Garrett, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

Perpendicular storage takes areal density and increases it by layering the bits vertically, says Karp. “Bits actually do have physical length, so instead of lying down, you stand them up on the disks,” he says.

The potential savings with this technology are high, says Dianne McAdam, a consultant at The Clipper Group. Perpendicular storage promises to increase storage in the same physical space by a factor of ten, she says. “That’s going to save on space because we’re storing much more information in the same footprint,” McAdam says. “It also saves on energy because we’ll need one-tenth the number of disk drives to store the same amount.”

Similarly, holographic storage promises to pack more into a smaller space by moving storage from 2-D to 3-D.

It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, and to some degree it still is, Karp says. “It’s very interesting in terms of its potential,” he says, but he adds that it’s still a long way from full commercial deployment.

One of the few holographic storage devices currently on the market is the Tapestry 300R from InPhase Technologies, based in Colorado. The drive costs US$18,000 (NZ$24,000) and the 1.5mm-thick platters are US$180 apiece.

Hybrid hard drives

These use non-volatile flash memory as a large buffer to cache data before storing it on a traditional spinning drive, allowing the platters on the hard drive to rest most of the time. Vendors include Seagate and Samsung.

Hybrid hard drives are another evolutionary step in storage that could bring important savings to IT organisations.

The concept is fairly straightforward: “It’s sort of cache memory attached to a hard disk drive,” The Clipper Group’s McAdam says, noting that she sees a future for this technology not only in laptops and desktops, but also in enterprise systems.

Data will write to a cache memory and, when the cache fills up, move to a hard drive. That concept isn’t new. Hard drives already have a buffer, says Enterprise Strategy Group’s Garrett. But those buffers are in the 4-8MB range; with hybrid hard drives, the buffer can reach 1GB. “It’s just a larger buffer, and it’s non-volatile,” Garrett says.

Like other advances in storage technology, hybrid hard drives could save energy and space. It takes energy to power-up and keep disks spinning, McAdam says. Because spinning creates heat, the disks then need to be cooled. In hybrid disk drives, the hard drive is spun down. In other words, the disk stops spinning, so it requires less energy.

“If the disks aren’t spinning [all the time], it costs less to power, and you can pack more disks more closely together because they don’t generate as much heat,” says Russell.

Analysts aren’t ready to quantify how much money this technology may save, however. “It’s still too new and we don’t have all the specs on this,” McAdam says. “They’re just coming to market now.”

Moreover, McAdam sees some circumstances where this technology could require more power than conventional disks do. “If for some reason you have to keep powering this thing up and down and up and down, you may not be able to see some savings,” she says.

Storage resource management software

This provides a centralised view of a company’s storage environment. It enables better control, management and provisioning of, as well as more accurate reporting on, storage resources. Vendors include EMC, Hewlett-Packard, CA and Symantec.

For many organisations, stored data is something of a black hole: it keeps expanding and no one has a complete understanding of what it holds.

In fact, the average utilisation rate of storage capacity is 40-50%, Gartner’s Russell says.

“No one thinks we should run at 100% — you want to have some reserves. But running at 80-90% would have enormous savings in utility costs and floor space,” he says.

Storage resource management software can help organisations reach that target, says Russell. “It’s about optimising what you have and delaying future investments. There will be a time when you’ll have to add more resources but you’d like to get more out of what you’ve already deployed,” he says.

This software looks at all storage in a company and allows it to be managed as one pool, The Clipper Group’s McAdam says. “With this software, because we virtualise how it looks, we can drive up utilisation. If we drive up utilisation we can get away with less physical storage.”

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