By Richard Villars, Analyst, IT Market Research Company IDC

All businesses are witnessing unprecedented growth in data volumes and the need for a better way to store these volumes. Whether they are small companies or the largest multinationals, the common response to the rising tide of data is to throw away “little or no digital information”, says Richard Villars, an analyst at IT market research company IDC.

“They think, ‘We may need this someday for a legal enquiry or to generate new revenue streams’,” he says - and in an age when the availability of corporate data can be a critical factor in business success, they may well have a point.

However, data storage is an area where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - as well as the individual business units or regional offshoots of much larger companies - continue to struggle. Their major challenges are complexity and cost.

Complexity is a problem, because storage management has historically been a specialist skill. That’s why many large companies have dedicated teams of skilled storage administrators, who spend their working lives keeping these systems tuned, formulating strategies to reduce the storage footprint and orchestrating back-ups that will enable the business to keep running in the event of a systems failure or natural disaster.

But in a smaller organization, the person in charge of managing and supporting storage is typically an ‘IT generalist’ - someone with limited IT knowledge and experience, and often no specialist storage skills, whose primary focus is simply on keeping mission-critical applications up and running. And in order to tackle the cost element of the equation, they’re increasingly looking for new approaches that eliminate much of the time and skills involved in managing critical data.

Despite their lack of specialist skills and budget, the IT generalist must increasingly cope with many of the same dynamics experienced in large data centre environments, just on a smaller scale. Just like bigger companies, the average SME’s IT environment has evolved from a few server/application based systems to encompass a much wider range of additional systems for new applications, email, file shares and back-up. This ‘server sprawl’, says Villars, poses storage systems deployment and management challenges. Growing back-up and data protection requirements, meanwhile, result in additional management complexity and costs.

What’s needed is a more optimized approach to IT, which incorporates measures to tackle storage complexity.

After all, as Villars points out, “the IT generalist doesn’t want to perform mundane storage device provisioning and management tasks, but they do need to set up, protect and expand storage capacity.”

There’s some good news, however: “Given the right tools and smart storage solutions, they can set up and use storage pools with a focus on managing information at the application level - without having to be a storage expert.”

Keep it simple

When talking to such organizations, IDC analysts typically find that ‘usability’ in data storage terms means three things.

First and foremost, usability means inherent flexibility, embodied by systems that support both block-based and file-based storage network protocols, so that IT teams can use a single system while still using the best option for different applications - whether that’s email, database transactions, or files.

Second, it means embedded data efficiency, including support for virtualization technologies and data management services (such as automated provisioning and data deduplication) which ensure that the physical storage infrastructure is used as effectively as possible. After all, the full virtualisation of storage environments is expected to play a critical role in enabling companies of all sizes to accommodate data growth, without overwhelming facilities or staff. Just as server virtualization transforms processing capability into a single pool of computing resource, storage virtualisation creates a single pool of capacity for the different types of data that a company needs to store.

At the same time, within this virtualised, unified storage environment, companies are looking to allocate data to the most appropriate storage, according to its value to the business over time.

Finally, usability means simple capacity provisioning and data protection. After all, no company wants to cripple mission-critical applications by providing them with inadequate storage space . Here, introducing a mix of storage media, to which different types of data can be ‘matched’, promises to play an important role - as long as the tools are in place to help companies orchestrate them effectively and, where possible, in an automated fashion.

Nor do they want to lose data as a result of systems failure or natural disaster . As a recent study from the Federation of Small Business (FSB) recently pointed out, 90 per cent of businesses that lose data from a disaster are forced to shut within two years.

What companies do want, however, is an intelligent, intuitive interface that enables them to manage storage easily and which is also ‘application aware’, so that administrators can easily set up storage pools that are optimised for important and widely deployed applications.

Getting the new generation of intelligent midrange storage systems up and running should be no big deal, either: a large number of well-qualified resellers and consulting partners are poised to help companies make the right choices from the start, enabling them not only to tackle today’s data storage challenges, but also prepare for tomorrow. These companies, too, can do much to help novices sort through the issues that all businesses face when considering their information governance challenges.