This is an article from the August 2006 issue of DM Review's Extended Edition. Click on this link for more information on DMR Extended Edition or to download this entire issue in a PDF format. 

Despite significant changes in the importance of storage technology and the vital information that it manages, too few organizations consider storage as a strategic asset.

While technology developments in the area of networked storage and storage virtualization have made it possible and economically prudent to treat storage as a separately managed asset, it is still too often tied to the application servers that access the storage and, as a result, gets treated as an afterthought. This approach has fostered haphazard, reactive storage practices at many companies, which is costing them dearly both in terms of increased expenses and lost opportunities.

As business success depends increasingly on how well information is captured, protected and leveraged, it is imperative that the storage infrastructure is approached in a much more disciplined manner.

Strategic and Operational Challenges

From an executive perspective, the absence of a strategic view toward storage creates huge challenges for the organization. Significant capital and operational inefficiencies are the result of storage assets that are often woefully underutilized and difficult to manage. Isolated, scattershot storage procedures create barriers that make it difficult to share information across business processes - an essential requirement in today's business environment. The information requirements of business processes often go underserved because of these limitations, and the resulting lack of information makes it difficult for businesses to respond to changing business conditions.

From an operational perspective, the challenges are just as significant. Cheaper disk has created little incentive to be selective regarding which information to keep.

Without consistent and reliable procedures in place to provide insight into the aggregated pool of storage resources, companies simply do not have the information they need to prevent these situations. Instead, they often resort to manual management procedures that are time-consuming, ineffective and error prone.

As a result, day-to-day management of storage resources and data is a nightmare. IT managers and staff have little ability to proactively address broader issues while they run around putting out day-to-day storage fires. Budgets and staff keep shrinking while the data keeps growing.

ITIL Best Practices

Ironically, a lack of technology does not seem to be the reason some organizations find themselves facing these issues. Many of these organizations have already begun the move from direct attached storage to storage networks and sophisticated virtualization software. Rather, the lack of a holistic, coordinated approach to allocating and managing storage resources is to blame.

The key to addressing these challenges is to begin viewing storage as a service that must be delivered at levels consistent with the user's requirements - and then implementing the practices and measurements to do this.

Recently Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of guidelines originally developed by the OGC (Office of Government Commerce) for the British government, has caught on as an industry-wide standard for a best practices approach to IT services. The ITIL libraries contain documentation on a systematic approach to planning, provisioning and supporting IT services.

ITIL recommends breaking the management of any IT service down to delivery and support tasks. In the delivery tasks, emphasis is placed on making service-level commitments that meet end-user requirements in the areas of performance, availability, capacity, configuration and cost.

In the support tasks, emphasis is placed on ensuring that the commitments outlined by the service level agreements are delivered both reliably and economically. The support tasks include configuration, incident, problem, release and change management as well as the service desk.

A commitment to an ITIL-based approach requires IT to become more user and service oriented. This commitment should result in documented policies, processes, procedures as well as organizational and automation plans that are monitored for compliance and updated at least twice a year. For some global companies, it is important that these documents provide a consistent glossary of terms that can be leveraged company wide.

The Value of a Best Practices Approach for Storage

When applied to the provisioning and management of storage services, the benefits of ITIL best practices are substantial. With limited additional technology investment, organizations can realize significant improvements in cost, complexity, utilization, time to provision and staff productivity.

Operating costs are reduced and capital investments for additional capacity are avoided because existing assets are utilized much more efficiently.

IT staff has a much clearer understanding of the functions and roles for which they are responsible with less overlap and role duplication. The need to chase daily fires is greatly reduced, which frees time for higher-value, proactive initiatives.

Most importantly, the implementation of ITIL-consistent storage services allows an organization to leverage its information assets more effectively. Storage services become more closely aligned with the information requirements of the business process that the storage supports. Ultimately, end-user satisfaction increases and risks are reduced because the information needed to complete tasks is more readily available.

Applying ITIL to Storage Services

The ITIL books are best practice guidelines that describe what rather than how. So, how is an organization to go about applying ITIL to the management of its storage infrastructure?

Often it requires the assistance of a proven third party with storage domain expertise that has taken the ITIL libraries and extended them from the point of view of storage. The most effective methodologies involve threes stages, including an assessment of the existing storage environment and identification of alternative solutions, the development of documented plans and, finally, the implementation and ongoing improvement of those plans.

The assessment stage begins by focusing on the policies, processes, organizations, procedures and metrics for managing storage that may or may not be in place already. Some of the questions include:

  • How many support staff members are required per terabyte of storage?
  • What is the current overall storage utilization rate?
  • How many storage problem tickets are open simultaneously on average?
  • How long does it take to provision new storage services or resources on average?
  • How many incidents or problems result from making changes?
  • What is the overhead associated with storage?
  • Are the roles clearly defined?
  • How is storage allocated?

Often, the answers are nonexistent or obviously deficient. When enough of these questions have been asked, the issues, and even some potential benefits, become self-evident. For example, the issues uncovered frequently highlight some storage acquisition costs that can be put off or avoided altogether.
Using an ITIL process maturity assessment, the gaps between the current storage environment and a best practice environment are identified along with strategies to close those gaps. Finally, the business impact of closing each gap is determined to rank them in priority order. A financial business case often supports the prioritization of the tasks as they are aligned to the overall IT strategy.

With the assessment complete, the policies, processes, organizations and procedures that close the gaps in priority order are documented, implemented, monitored and adjusted to account for changing conditions.

Ideally, the result of this methodology is an optimized storage management model as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Optimized Storage Management Model

For those organizations that have yet to address storage management issues, the challenge is becoming more acute and urgent. A significant new technology implementation will not help. Instead, a practical approach that focuses on utilizing existing storage technologies more effectively is needed. ITIL best practices provide the foundation for storage services that do just that. An organization that seeks the assistance of a highly experienced consultant with deep storage domain expertise, and a proven library of ITIL-consistent storage best practices is more likely to successfully leverage the full value of its critical data assets.

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