Storage Services: Where Are They Today?

In late 1999 and early 2000, Storage Service Providers (SSPs) appeared to be a light on the storage industry's horizon, signaling a new way for corporations to procure and manage storage. SSPs promised large corporations a pay-as-you-grow storage strategy, with disaster protection and data availability according to service level agreements (SLAs). Corporations were going to use SSPs to refocus IT personnel on crucial core business tasks and, most importantly, to lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

Have SSPs delivered on their promise? Now, at the end of 2001, talk about SSPs has quieted down, and some corporations wonder whether the service model is even a viable option for storage delivery. Presently, the economic downturn and the unwillingness of companies to take risks have contributed to slow customer adoption. But what about the concept and the providers—can this paradigm eventually find its place in the corporate data center?

In general, most SSPs provide two types of storage services, along with other value-added offerings such as professional services, storage assessments, and expert consulting. Most SSP's storage services fall into the category of storage-on-demand or into a class of services that relate to backup and recovery. Storage-on-demand lets consumers purchase storage by the gigabyte when they need it, in the increments they need. A dedicated customer connection provides storage to a large, central pool of resources, either dedicated to one customer or shared among many. Storage-on-demand works best with collocated storage and servers, or with storage and servers that have sufficient bandwidth, including last-mile connectivity (i.e., the link between an end user's system and the high-speed Internet-access technology of a service provider). The thought process behind this delivery method presumes that the consumer has lower storage-acquisition costs, with no under- or over-utilization of resources and minimal management costs.

In reality, storage-on-demand is appropriate only for certain applications, including network-based file-serving applications or any application for which a user requires infrequent online access to data. Applications for which storage management is a key management task that the application administrator controls are less suited for a storage-on-demand service. For example, a DBA whose database grows by leaps and bounds would have a difficult time offloading the application's storage management to a third-party SSP. The administrator (who understands users, queries, tables, update requirements) would need to work closely with the SSP, which has no intimate knowledge of the application's specific storage needs. Integration of storage-on-demand services into this type of environment is difficult at best.

In addition, storage-on-demand for some applications (such as databases or other transaction-based applications) requires low-latency, high-speed connections between server and storage. Although bandwidth price has dropped substantially over the past few years and its availability has increased, the number of customers connected to high-speed networks is relatively small. Connection costs might outweigh any cost savings that better storage resource use provides.

Although storage-on-demand services are appropriate for only a few markets and applications, backup and recovery services provide immediate value to many customers. Backup is a chore that most users don't like: it's time-consuming, expensive to manage, and often poorly configured. Not only do SSPs offer backup, archiving, and disaster-recovery expertise, backup and recovery services offer to take away the headache of performing these arduous tasks. Based on guaranteed SLAs, customers can have protected, accessible data.

Last-mile connectivity is important for users to remember when they consider backup services; however, backup and recovery services can set up configurations and architectures to support snapshot copies, off-hours backup, and other optimal configurations for flawless delivery of backup and archiving services. Several companies provide backup and recovery services as a private utility (using their own or the customers' equipment at the customer site). The options are numerous and provide immediate value.

Despite a number of SSP failures this past year, many SSPs have emerged strong and viable. These SSPs often offer added value in the form of excellent customer interfaces (through proprietary software), an emphasis on vertical markets, and onsite management of customer-owned storage resources or professional services. The market for services will continue to grow as manageability of storage resources becomes easier for SSPs and as customers achieve an understanding of the value an SSP can bring—particularly in the areas of backup, archiving, and disaster recovery. The SSP light continues to beckon as a solution to the problem of ever-increasing and unmanageable storage.

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