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A Better Outlook for Information Management
New storage industry trends help organizations face the information explosion.
by Nelson Ruest and Danielle Ruest

It's hard to believe that some IT shops still think allocating 50 megabytes (MB) per user on a network is enough. Others don't manage user storage at all, waiting until people complain and then giving them unlimited space on the servers. But this willy-nilly approach to storage is not an answer. Storage space shouldn't run amok in the enterprise just because it keeps becoming less expensive.

The storage story doesn't end with where you put the data, though. It must also deal with how you protect it. If your organization allows uncontrolled growth of storage requirements, especially in distributed storage environments, you will soon be faced with a disaster—what's worse, it will be a disaster of your own making.

That's why you need to tackle storage issues today. Many companies are addressing the issue, partly because storage goes hand in hand with disaster recovery. If all of an organization's electronic assets are located within an information store, the store must be both secure and protected.

The good news is that the industry is at a crux in terms of both storage and disaster recovery. New technologies such as Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (Serial ATA, or SATA), Internet small computer serial interface (iSCSI), and Windows Server 2003, along with advances in current technologies such as Fibre Channel, paint a pretty picture for the future of storage technologies. In the end, these advances should make access to a simpler, more streamlined storage approach readily available to organizations of all sizes.

Choose Your Storage Solution
Not all organizations are ready to move to centralized storage. Many believe that using distributed data deposits through direct attached storage (storage that is directly located within a server) is still the way to go. The problem with this approach is that when you run out of space, you need to add drive units within each server box or else add a new server. This does not help reduce your management overhead, but it can be a good approach, given that centralized storage devices can be expensive to integrate.

For organizations wanting to continue with this approach, 1Vision Software offers a powerful utility, called vSERV or vSERV/LX, that automatically collates all free space on any number of distributed servers and makes it appear as a single volume of space. The LX version will work with a maximum of 280 gigabytes (GB) while the full version has no limits. So if you're not ready to move to centralized storage, you can still profit from the aggregation of all your storage resources.

For organizations that want to move to more centralized storage without breaking the bank, network-attached storage (NAS) devices are now available for as low as $2,000. NAS devices that run familiar software such as the new Windows Storage Server 2003 (see Resources) are easy to set up and can be configured in minutes. These devices are ideal for file storage because they support multiple protocols. Windows Storage Server 2003 supports the common Internet file system (CIFS), the network file system (NFS), AppleTalk, and NetWare protocols. These NAS devices can easily support multiple terabytes (TB) of file storage.

Pricing and Protocols
Prices should go down as new technologies hit the marketplace. SATA drives have been touted as a boon for low-cost storage solutions. They provide significantly faster throughput than traditional, parallel ATA drives (such as the drives found in most PCs), giving up to 50 percent speed improvements. They are also considerably less expensive than SCSI drives, which are the mainstay in storage solutions today. SATA drives have speeds of up to 150 MB per second.

Slated for release next year, SATA II drives will be boosted to 300 MB/s and SATA III drives (expected in 2007) will have speeds of 600 MB/s. While these speeds do not rival SCSI drives, the price difference between SATA and SCSI makes SATA attractive for non-mission-critical application storage requirements. Several new NAS offerings are based entirely on SATA technology.

In addition to SATA, a new storage protocol is hitting the streets: Internet SCSI (iSCSI). This protocol is designed to allow high-speed data transfers over standard TCP/IP connections. It wraps block-level storage traffic in a TCP/IP message to send over a standard network connection and unwraps it at reception. iSCSI aids small- and medium-sized businesses because it leverages standard networking technology for storage purposes. It is ideal for organizations that have already invested in more traditional fibre channel-based storage systems, because it is completely compatible with fibre channel technology. For example, a firm using two separate fibre-based systems can connect them through standard networking technologies with iSCSI.

This will also benefit disaster recovery solutions because it fully supports the notion of geographic clusters. A geographic cluster, or geocluster as it is known in the industry, is made up of a bank of servers operating in tandem to provide load balancing and fail-over services (see Figure 1). The difference a geocluster brings is that these servers are situated in separate physical locations, sometimes spanning large distances. Traditionally, it has been expensive to put geoclusters in place because of the high cost of linking sites together, but with the arrival of iSCSI, these costs should go down considerably. This means that even small- to medium-sized firms can look ahead to comprehensive, but low-cost, disaster recovery solutions.

iSCSI is expected to gain considerable momentum in the next few years, since Microsoft released a standard iSCSI driver for Windows 2000, XP, and Windows Server 2003 on June 30, 2003. This means that Windows systems can connect directly to any technologies that support the protocol. In fact, Microsoft claims that more than 60 software and hardware vendors have begun developing solutions based on the new driver.

Fibre Channel Options
Despite the advance of network-based technologies to access storage, the fibre channel industry has not been resting on its laurels. Known for its high-speed data access rates, fibre channel is increasing its margin by developing newer, faster switches. Though the 10 gigabit (G-bit) switch has been in the making for some time, the newly ratified 4 G-bit switch will certainly be more popular in the short run (see Resources).

That's because 4 G-bit fibre channel is much more versatile than 10 G-bit. First, it's twice as fast as current switches. Second, its pricing should be comparable to current switches. Third, virtually all switch vendors have stated that they are going to support the new standard. And fourth, unlike 10 G-bit fibre channel, it is backward-compatible with both 1 G-bit and 2 G-bit switches, making it easier to integrate with current hardware. This is all thanks to a recent vote by the Fibre Channel Industry Association that decided, by a large margin, to support the 4 G-bit standard. The vote should go a long way toward helping fibre channel maintain its supremacy in large storage systems.

One thing is clear. More and more storage solutions are becoming hardware agnostic; that is, they are becoming more standardized and hardware independent. Both manufacturers and customers realize that proprietary solutions have a short lifespan in the marketplace. Having broadly accepted operating systems such as Windows talk to storage technologies from any vendor is a major advantage for customers, especially customers who have not yet invested in centralized storage (see Resources) because it will simplify the way storage solutions are put together.

Take the First Step
Although advances in new technologies will help your storage situation both in the short- and long-term, they cannot do the work for you. It is clear that organizations are now faced with both a need to manage vast amounts of storage and a need to protect this asset well.

But don't make the same mistake others have. Storage costs might be going down (according to the META Group, there is a 35 percent decline in cost per GB per year), but it is still important to review the value of the information you intend to store and protect. The best way to do this is through information categorization. Few organizations have even considered this aspect of storage management. You might find that at the end of this exercise, you'll have a lot less to keep and protect than you thought you had in the first place.

About the Author
Danielle Ruest and Nelson Ruest (MCSE) just released their third book, Windows Server 2003 Pocket Administrator (Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2003), an everyday administration reference. Their second book, Windows Server 2003, Best Practices for Enterprise Deployments (Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2003), is a step-by-step guide for designing enterprise networks with this new operating system. They are also authors of Preparing for .NET Enterprise Technologies (Addison-Wesley, 2001), a book on mastering change in the enterprise. Both work for Resolutions Enterprises (www.reso-net.com), a small Canadian consulting firm that provides services in the information architecture and change management fields. Both can be reached through [email protected].