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Storage Utilities: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

If your IT shop is like many, you've either already deployed a storage utility or doing so is on your list of the top five things to do or investigate over the next year. Unfortunately, many organizations--caught up in the hype of storage consolidation--haven't carefully considered the hurdles they must overcome and identified the factors that will influence the success of a storage utility.

I see two approaches to building a storage utility: the "build it and they will come" philosophy and the subscription model, in which you add capacity and capability as customers subscribe. Regardless of the approach, a significant hurdle is convincing service and application owners within an IT organization to commit to putting their pet service or application on the storage utility. Everyone wants to let someone else try it first (like the Exchange administrator who says, "My services are too mission-critical to host on the storage utility. Look for a less-important service to try it first."). Application and service owners are often unwilling to take the risk of using a storage utility for various legitimate and illegitimate reasons, including security, management, Quality of Service (QoS), and control.

Organizations need a solid approach and strategy for targeting the applications and services that will use the storage utility. One approach might be to look for low-hanging fruit (e.g., file services, low-use legacy applications, intranet Web farms) and get buy-in from those owners before venturing down the path to a storage utility. Starting off with the applications and services that no one will argue about is often a good approach.

Line of business (LOB) applications are a more challenging target. The number of individual servers and storage arrays for every LOB application at my workplace always amazes me. The problem is rooted in the fact that every LOB application is treated and resourced as an individual project. The business has a requirement, the requirements drive the application, the application drives the hardware (server and storage) requirements, and the server and storage are purchased and deployed into the data center without a thought to efficiency or economies of scale. Every application owner has some justification for why his or her application requires a dedicated infrastructure. For a storage utility to be successful long term, it must compel LOB application owners to take a chance and use it.

A successful storage utility requires more than features and functionality--it also requires IT cultural change. At a high level, the organization needs to insist that LOB application owners examine the feasibility of the storage utility before defaulting to their own server and storage hardware. Are some LOB applications not right for a storage utility? Of course, but IT must make a case for every LOB application to be deployed on the storage utility and application owners must be made to justify why their application isn't a good candidate for the storage utility. Only after fundamental cultural changes take place in IT and the organization can LOB applications be successfully hosted on the storage utility.

Making the storage utility a compelling service offering isn't easy. Manageability--including Storage Resource Management (SRM), disaster recovery and business continuance, and security--is one key reason for the difficulty. With the storage utility concept relatively new and the technologies that support it even less mature, convincing application and service owners that they should take a chance on the storage utility is a challenge. As many of these things mature, convincing the organization to embrace the service will become easier.

In the meantime, for your IT shop to make its offering compelling and successful, you'll need to invest in overcoming immaturities in the technology, changing organizational culture, and formulating a clear hierarchy of the applications and services that you want to target as customers for the storage utility. Start off small, and prove the concept with less-risky services. Then, build a case that will convince even the mightiest service owners that their applications or services will work on a storage utility. If you don't, your storage utility will be all dressed up with no place to go.

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