New concepts that result in change are typically disruptive and costly when they enter the information infrastructure of our lives and businesses. The latest concept of 'utility computing' seems to not only be one of the 'hottest' buzzwords on the storage conference circuit, but also a concept that will force considerable change. However, even though it is beginning to gain acceptance -- and some experts believe that storage is the next logical step -- many experts believe that utility computing in the storage sector is at least a few years away from mainstream use.
"Over the past few years, physical storage has become almost as much of a commodity as the water that utilities carry," says Tom Fredrick, senior vice president at Precise SRM. Fredrick says technologies that allow the dynamic provisioning of storage help to complete the delivery of storage as a utility. "New technologies that provide policy-based management of storage content add a layer of intelligence to the storage -- making it more seamless to the user on the other end of the wall jack," he continues.
On the other hand, Rik Mussman, vice president of technology with Nexsan, believes that utility computing in the storage arena is still years away from mainstream use, although he does point out that utility computing in other areas, such as the remote storage of email and Web hosting, is quite common today and widely accepted.
Diamond Lauffin, senior executive vice president of Nexsan, says that the real question is not whether we have the technology available or the capability to deliver the concept of utility computing in the storage arena; the real question is one of social acceptance. "The United States has already embraced and turned itself into a service-based organizational model, long ago foregoing its position of being a manufacturing dynasty," he says.
"We see well-accepted examples in the decline of physical home answering machines. Remote voice mail services have supplanted home-based answering machines and allow ease of use and greater mobility. Cell phones have driven this even further. When have you ever picked up your VM on your cell phone from a physical answering device? Have you questioned whether this remote storage would work?"
'Charge Back' a Key to Utility Trend
One of the key parts of the utility computing concept that many think will drive the trend is the ability to do "charge back," which allows IT departments to divide the costs of providing servers and storage among a firm's various business units. The big question is, will the concept of "charging back" accelerate the use of utility computing?
According to Fredrick, charge backs are already a part of IT today; however, he says, many companies just spread the cost across all the departments, with everybody paying into the pool. "This 'one size fits all' approach does not work well and sometimes fails to adequately support a particular part of the business," says Fredrick.
"It will become the business line managers, in conjunction with IT professionals, that will drive new technology adoptions and innovations to continually lower costs," Fredrick continues. "Charge back systems reward innovation and improve the return on technology assets."
However, with that said, Lauffin disagrees when it comes to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and says that charge back will not have any bearing on the progress. "Charge back is already an established protocol at most large companies and has been for several years," he says. "With smaller companies, the concept of charge back is irrelevant in that they typically have no capacity for it," he elaborates. Mussman agrees and says that the concept of utility computing will probably never be embraced by SMBs because they do not have the financial resources necessary to support it.
Managing Storage as a Service
Still, is the concept of 'managing storage' as a service really a part of the fabric of storage? Fredrick points out that there are two areas of managing storage: The management of the physical storage, which is quickly becoming the enabler for utility computing, and storage content management.
Fredrick contends the physical management of storage will become part of the fabric of storage by introducing dynamic LUN management and alternate path data routing. In addition, he feels that these services are part of the pipes of the utility computing model. "As for content management, this is a service that will become a service that is offered to business line managers to better manage their IT resources," he says.
Many experts believe that storage will eventually become a service or utility with data ending up in remote vaults, managed at a central point, by a central group. "We will see a greater number of central vaults of data storage, " says Lauffin. However, he again brings up the issue of social acceptance. "On the way to those central vaults, there will be different generational perceptions standing in the way. Overcoming generational differences has traditionally been a 5-8 year cycle within our industry," he adds.
With all this talk about utility computing, another question arises and that is: Is the concept of utility computing a business style issue or a technical one? Although many people believe that it is more of a business style issue, others do not see it that way. "IT managers have always looked for ways to demonstrate the value they bring to an organization," says Fredrick. "Getting the businesses to buy into a differentiated delivery of IT services based on what they are wiling to pay is a new concept that needs to be accepted." Mussman disagrees and says that it will be easier to get the business side to buy into the concept of utility computing because the IT side will be concerned with losing their jobs if and when companies embrace storage as part of utility computing.
What's Driving the Utility Concept and What's in Store for It?
Although the concept of utility computing has been a major issue on the conference circuit, what exactly is driving this concept, and is it an "either/or" proposition? Fredrick says that today's IT environments are so complex that when a problem occurs the finger pointing begins. "It's the storage, it's the network, or it's the application, and nothing gets fixed," he says. He says that by approaching utility computing as a "service offering," all the disparate departments will soon realize that they must work together to deliver the service.
As far as utility computing being an "either/or" proposition, Lauffin does not believe that it will fit into that category. "In the transition to this utility paradigm we will see the continued trend for responsible companies to co-locate their data onsite and offsite for greater security and confidence, " he says. "This may be the pervading model for some time, particularly with large businesses." Mussman also believes that most companies will start with selected services that meet particular needs, and some customers will even double up as providers, offering resources where they have special skills or capacity.
Despite the recent advances in utility computing, there are still issues that need to be worked out before large companies will embrace the model. Many experts believe that technology is not the limiting factor when it comes to utility computing, but that changing the perceptions about the way managers think about technology and how they want it delivered may very well be the mitigating factor.