Lifecycle transformations

Today’s businesses are producing so much data that the costs and scale of managing that data threatens to overwhelm organisations; ILM, so the theory goes, can help business leaders establish order, and do so at a manageable cost.

ILM promises a storage infrastructure where information is stored according to its business value; where it is automatically migrated to progressively cheaper storage media as its value  declines over time; and where the complex service-level requirements of a particular information element are consistently met throughout its entire lifecycle, without the need for human intervention.

But ever since the term ILM became fashionable, many converts have found ILM to be intriguing in theory, but complex in reality. Indeed, the vast majority of organisations that have embarked on the ILM journey are still some way away from reaching their desired destination.

The road to enlightenment

They should not feel discouraged, says Ray Paquet, an analyst with IT market research company Gartner. “ILM is a grand vision,” he says, “and as with most grand visions, total success is unlikely to be achieved immediately.” ILM, he adds, is a three- to four-year strategy – at the very least.

But that is no reason to delay implementing ILM principles. Individual storage management initiatives, he says, can bring substantial return on investment, even in the short term. “If you modify the storage used and the levels of data protection throughout the lifecycle of a piece of information, you can immediately lower the total cost of ownership, achieve a level of compliance and improve availability of information by aligning information with business goals and service levels.”

In fact, many organisations may have already progressed further along the road to ILM than they actually realise, without necessarily having in place a dedicated ILM strategy – much less an ILM budget. For example, data protection is part of the information lifecycle, so implementing back-up systems (which introduce another ‘tier’ to the storage infrastructure) might justifiably be considered to be the first steps in the direction of ILM.

“The point of ILM is to make sure you’re not eating up expensive fibre channel drives with stuff you don’t need to save, or that, conversely, you’re not tossing information onto tape you might need to rapidly retrieve later on,” explains Nick Laurence, UK enterprise marketing manager at Dell. “Most IT directors I speak to readily acknowledge that their organisations store far too much information on high-end disk and there is, naturally, a strong impetus to move away from that situation,” he adds.

Laurence proposes a four-step approach to ILM. The first step starts with achieving an understanding of what data is stored and where it is kept. From there, it can be categorised according to its requirements – for example, how often it is accessed, how quickly it may need to be retrieved and how long it needs to be kept for, in accordance with regulatory and legislative mandates.

“This can, and should, include a ranking of applications and their data, relative to one another, based on the value of that information to the business,” says Michael Peterson, an analyst with IT market research company Strategic Research Corp. “This value can include intrinsic value based on how much money is lost due to unavailability of the data or the application, and it can include extrinsic values such as risk and company image associated with loss of the data,” he adds.

The value of the data then leads to the definition of service level objectives (SLOs) – acceptable levels of service for performance, availability, operational recovery, disaster recovery, security, and so on.

For many companies, this is a “huge challenge in itself”, according to Andy Holpin, a storage consultant at systems integrator Morse. “In particular, it relies on a wide-ranging collaboration effort between the business and IT, which is never easy.”

 The difficulty in identifying and categorising business data is especially true when it comes to the huge volumes of unstructured information that most companies store. Companies such as EMC see the answer in software capable of searching all corporate information in file systems and classifying it according to pre-defined rules. “Many companies struggle in determining which unstructured information is critical and which is not. Using an automated approach to identify and classify this information will take much of the pain out of the process,” says David Gingell, vice president of marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for EMC Software.

Storage tiers

The second step along the ILM roadmap is to tier an organisation’s storage. Paquet of Gartner recommends that IT organisations with small environments maintain three tiers of storage and those with larger environments use four tiers.

An example of four tiers of storage, Laurence of Dell suggests, might include :

  • 4 gigabyte (GB) fibre channel disks for mission-critical applications with high performance, availability and recovery requirements;
  • 2GB fibre channel disks for applications with moderate performance, availability and recovery requirements;
  • Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) disks for onsite back-up/archiving;
  • Tape for back-ups/archives too be be taken offsite.

Through its partnership with EMC, he adds, Dell sells storage systems that allow users to ‘mix and match’ different disk types within a single array. “That really helps with the management burden that ILM can impose on hard-pressed storage management teams,” he says.

Data mapping

The third state on the ILM journey is to map categorised data to these data tiers. This should be carried according to a principle of ‘solution stacks’, according to Peterson of Strategic Research. “A solution stack provides a complete (or nearly complete) ILM environment around a particular application,” he explains. “For example, based on the SLOs for a specific application and its information, define where active primary storage goes, where long-term online retention is held, and the regulatory and archive repositories,” he says.

Once this is done, he adds, an organisation will be ready to begin operating the solution stack in accordance with ILM principles.

ILM automation

Automation is the final, essential component for ILM – but it relies on a significant software investment to be successful. Without a rules-based software layer that automatically moves data between storage tiers according to pre-set policies, says Holpin of Morse, companies are forced to rely on manual efforts – and that is, at best, a short-term solution, he says.

It is also where many ILM initiatives fall down – and where the storage industry still has work to do. Put simply, the SMI-S industry standard championed by the 300 vendors that make up the Storage Network Industry Association (SNIA) is too immature to meet its goal of providing a single storage management software console to enforce sophisticated ILM policies across all devices in the typical multi-vendor, heterogeneous storage environment.

Until that situation changes – and much is promised for 2007 – companies that wish to apply ILM to multi-vendor storage infrastructures must use multiple software products to carry out even the most basic data migration tasks. But by carrying out the first three steps on the roadmap to ILM and by deploying software products that comply with existing, early versions of the SMI-S standard, insist vendors, companies can be sure that their ILM destination is at least in sight, if not attainable yet.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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