Virtualization and the Cloud Will Change Data Storage

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Amid tentative signs that the economy is trying to emerge from its worst downturn in more than 50 years, data storage industry analysts, vendors and financiers gathered last week at the BD Event in Boston to offer their thoughts on where the storage and IT industries are headed in the year ahead.

IT sales growth is a fraction of what it was a decade ago, and users are intent on keeping it that way by wringing every last bit of efficiency out of their IT environments.

In keeping with that spirit of doing more with less, Virtualizationand the cloud were the top trends identified by show attendees.

“Virtualization used to be all about the low-hanging fruit, where server consolidation and cost management were the drivers,” said John Gavin of Akorri. “Now it’s really all about simplifying management and managing performance issues when in mission-critical applications.”

Data centers are moving more and more from the constraints of physical devices and to a comprehensive model. Now they’ve moved on to the second stage — the virtualization of applications like Microsoft SharePoint, e-mail and CRM. Some companies have even moved onto stage three, with virtualization in multiple layers, combining server and storage virtualization to create large storage pools and then virtually allocating capacity as needed.

Yet many IT organizations are struggling with two worlds: a physical world that is not yet completely virtualized combined with new applications purchased under a mandate that unless they can go on virtual machines, the purchase must be justified.

Data centers have inherited tools from the physical world to manage different problems, and now have to contend with point solutions to manage virtualized environments. New tools are coming on the market to manage ever-increasing storage pools and the expanding layers that virtualization creates. In the next year, IT managers will see more comprehensive virtualization infrastructure management software, from single vendors or open sourced, designed to watch applications, pinpoint diagnostics, and remediate issues across heterogeneous environments.

Complexity and cost are driving different points of control across different layers of storage. Organizations with remote offices may need centralized backup, restore capabilities to remote offices, and cloud archival capabilities. Tony Cerqueira of Cofio Software sees end-to-end management of active information as a theme of future business processes, offering a way to combine different operations and provide a single point of control for data.

The focus in the virtualized world will continue to be on smart management and cost reductions, according to Clive Surfleet of Blade Network Technologies. New infrastructure tools like switch modules that fit into existing blade server/rack environments can help existing bandwidth scale while minimizing cost and lay the foundation for a rack-level network infrastructure that can cost-effectively provision and scale out virtualized data centers, Web 2.0 environments, and high-performance computing clusters.

A Cloudy Future

While pundits believe that the cloud will be a part of almost every data center, just what the cloud is remains a bit obscure. John Rotchford of Strategic Advisory Services International sees cloud as “back to the future” — going back to a mainframe environment of one computing infrastructure in a cloud, distributed but simplified. Clouds can also be seen as “on-demand services,” a computing resource that is scalable on demand over the network, or a way to get around an IT department and get a project moving — a business customer’s dream but a potential IT nightmare.

User-generated content continues to cast a bigger digital shadow, and the next year will continue to see the rapid growth of unstructured data, the need to store larger files, and an even greater impact from industries like healthcare and finance. The premise that the cloud offers better access at lower cost still needs to be tested, especially with data that has business value. Nevertheless, IT managers with an eye on their competitors would be wise to examine cloud solutions.

Nirvanix’s Jim Zierick envisions the cloud as a storage delivery network. He sees use cases for the cloud in the data center that include offsite data protection, tiered storage, distributed content and collaboration as a hub to share data, and embedded storage. The bright future of the cloud, according to Zierick, is in cloud-enabled partner applications, including the ability to store user documents and use polices to manage backup, disaster recovery and the number of copies offered in a secure, available and easily managed storage environment.

John Bantleman from Clearpace sees a new use for cloud storage as something of a data escrow device — keeping a copy with a third party to ensure availability and use for reporting. Cloud appliances are also popping up for download and storage of database information and the ability to disseminate for queries on usage scenarios of how cloud storage is being used.

Clouds have the potential to change everything — they already have for consumer-driven applications, and while not so fast, clouds are changing the behavior of the enterprise, said Rotchford. Even though there is still confusion and debate among the providers, there will be on-demand services that work.

Adoption of new technologies takes years, although the cycles are compressing, said Tony Asaro of the INI Group. He contrasted the 44 years for cars to reach 25 percent adoption in the U.S. compared to seven years for the Internet. Asaro doesn’t see companies moving all their IT resources into the cloud any time soon. They will continue to do their “bread and butter” applications by buying infrastructure and owning it themselves, but will use clouds to augment and enhance their operations.

Right now, there is solid near-term adoption of clouds in emerging markets, startups and SMBs, said Rotchford, and by 2013 they will be in the enterprise. Rotchford bets on internal clouds as the eventual enterprise winner, with external clouds used for non-critical applications. And one day the clouds will separate, with the term cloud even fading away over the next 10 years.

Follow the Money

So where is industry headed? While no one could agree on the “next big thing,” merger and acquisition experts agreed that historic products and markets will continue to dominate, but the next decade will bring more consolidation of big companies into even bigger companies. On the other hand, while big companies will “eat” new companies and buy their way into new markets, the power of the entrepreneur is still strong even in this recession, especially when looking at new technologies and business. IT managers would be wise to watch the “new guys” who capitalize on opportunities to disrupt the big guns and have the potential to grow to dominate a market.

The industry is paring back, and potential is always tied to funds, the panel cautioned. Especially in today’s economy, cash is the oxygen not only for startups, but also for existing companies. Economies are so intertwined that events halfway around the world can create serious ramifications at home. IT managers and their companies need to look at their vendors with a new perspective. “Companies who do not have a global focus will fail,” said Andrew Williamson of Alexander Durham.

“Nothing is more strategic than revenue, so IT should focus on how to generate revenue and increase profitability.”

— Tony Asaro

Change will occur either by force or by design, said Asaro. To be successful, IT professionals must “balance their left- and right-brain thinking,” he said, citing an example where a company needed to open up access to users but was limited by physical servers. The IT manager used virtualization to put up 30 different applications for users to access.

“Keeping the lights on is number one, but if companies go out of business, the lights will go off,” Asaro concluded. “Nothing is more strategic than revenue, so IT should focus on how to generate revenue and increase profitability.”

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