Seven Best Practices for Managing Data Storage

Despite the strategic value of data, many enterprises have yet to establish robust storage management strategies that keep important data readily available, the cost of managing it low and its access safe and secure. Given the huge proportion of corporate data that resides in unstructured or semi-structured form — such as in documents, spreadsheets and e-mails — this is a daunting challenge.

“Data both grows very fast and ages very fast,” says Mike Noordyke, president of the Trivalent Group, a consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. “You need to put strategies in place that allow you to monitor and manage it effectively, or it will impact your firm’s ability to function properly.”

Data storage experts recommend the following seven practices to help enterprises, both large and small, stay on top of their data storage challenges:

Establish recovery time objectives and put technology and processes in place to enforce them Recovery time objectives (aka RTOs) specify the maximum time allowed between a system crash and when data is restored. “Backup is one thing, but restoring is another,” says Noordyke. “You can have the best backup mechanism in the world in place, but if you can’t make your data accessible again in a timely manner, your business can take a real hit.”

Classify data into “tiers” By assigning value to data throughout its lifecycle, fromĀ  the moment it is created until it is destroyed, organizations can begin to establish policies on when to move data from the most accessible — and expensive — disk storage to media that is more difficult to access, but which is substantially cheaper. But it’s not enough to merely classify data according to “old” or “new” says Mike Karp, a senior analyst and head of the storage practice at Enterprise Management Associates, in Boulder, Colo. “You have to look at the underlying value, rather than assuming old data is less important than newer information.” Concurrently, it’s important to think not just in terms of managing capacity, but of performance, says Kris Domich, principal consultant for Data Center and Storage Solutions at Dimension Data, a $3.1 billion IT services firm based in New York. “Implementing monitoring and management tools is a must, so you can collect and see trends in performance as well as space usage over time.”

Talk to actual users To help classify data into these different “value” tiers, it’s critical to keep users in the loop, says Scott Robinson, chief technology office at DataLink, a Chanhassen, Minn., enterprise storage integrator. “There’s no magic bullet; you have to go out and interview business data owners, and gain a first-hand knowledge of the needs of each business unit and how they prioritize their data,” he says.

Understand the true cost of storage “Organizations must also understand the actual cost per gigabyte of storing data,” says Dan Mack, a principal consultant with Glass House Technologies, an enterprise storage consulting firm based in Framingham, Mass. Firms need to include everything in this calculation: hardware, software, maintenance, employee time, service and support fees from external parties and — last but not least — utility costs. “A huge part of the IT department’s budget is storage. They need this cost information to make all sorts of decisions, including calculating the true cost of proposed IT projects,” he says.

Limit access to need-to-know data In general, companies make data available to a lot more people than actually need it. “‘Deny all’ should be the default, and organizations should only give access to those people who really need it,” says Domich. “And you have to audit those access rights on a regular basis.”

Safely destroy, as well as protect, critical data operations “Completely erasing data is just as important as other aspects of data security,” says Greg Schulz, founder of the StorageIO Group, a storage analyst firm based in Stillwater, Minn. “This means not simply discarding old magnetic tape, disk drives, laptops and desktop systems, but destroying the data residing on them.”

Discriminate between backup and archiving “The growth of data — whether in e-mails, IMs, database records, or transactions — is pretty alarming,” says Mike Kahn managing director of The Clipper Group, in Wellesley, Mass. “You need to know, legally, what you need to keep and what needs simply to be archived versus what is needed for backup and recovery purposes.” Adds Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, an enterprise consulting firm based in Milford, Mass.: “Given increasing emphasize on compliance and privacy, companies need to be very vigilant to make sure that data is secured as well as readily available when required.”

In the end, companies need to have an “information perspective” on all aspects of their data storage, says Joe Martins, a partner at the Data Mobility Group LLC, a Nassau, N.H.-based storage analyst group. “They need to think of storage less as bits and bytes and put it in a business context. This is what makes effective storage management capabilities so important.”