SANs are more popular than ever, but beware of hidden costs and other headaches.
What's the most important part of an IT environment? In my view, it is the disk system. If anything else breaks down you can always replace a part. But you can never easily replace the data in a disk that is lost or dies. At heart, IT systems are all about processing data, and to do that you need to be able to find and retrieve files stored on disks. While this seems obvious, it's only recently that the industry has awoken to the importance of effective storage.
Perhaps the catalyst has been the burgeoning need for data storage within organisations. IDC tracks terabytes of total disk shipments in Australia. These doubled between 2001 and 2003, and IDC anticipates a 48.8 per cent compound annual growth rate through 2007. Similarly, in the same time frame, IDC expects the value of Storage Area Network (SAN) shipments to double in both Australia and New Zealand.
SANs allow organisations to consolidate their storage needs and require less overall administrative labour, which is clearly why they hold so much appeal in today's business climate, where there is a strong focus on cost reduction. However, IDC also recognises the increasing importance of security in the corporate mind-set. Information security has grown from being the sixteenth largest challenge of the local CIO agenda before the September 11 attacks to the sixth highest today. In discussions with InTEP many members anticipate this being even higher next year. By consolidating data resources, SANs allow greater scope for protection of that information.
Nevertheless, while research published by US research organisation Computer Economics in March 2003 reveals an 18-month to two-year payback, other research from IDC reveals the hidden costs of SANs. Interestingly, over half the costs in a SAN implementation are in the software, services and consumables to set up, manage and operate the environment. There can be no doubt that SANs offer consolidation, easier systems administration and security advantages. However, on the downside, they are complicated to install, have a high upfront installation cost and have limited interoperability between SANs from different vendors.
The Computer Economics report references work by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). SNIA recently completed interoperability testing of mid-range SANs and has developed guidelines for organisations faced with the problems of local mirroring and remote replication of data between such systems. Yet their final advice is that while homogeneous SAN implementations will cost more, they'll also cause fewer headaches.
SANs are still in their infancy and a number of eagerly anticipated features are likely to appear in the near future, such as SANs working over wide area networks (WANs) to consolidate the data resources in dispersed organisations and SANs where disk partition sizes can be dynamically adjusted to suit immediate requirements and faster network protocols. In addition, we're starting to see the emergence of SANs running over IP networks. All of this functionality offers cost savings and easier administration.
In the end, though, IDC predicts that as SANs become an increasingly mature technology the margins from them will shrink and revenue growth in this market will be limited. IDC also expects some consolidation in the market as storage-only vendors come under attack from server vendors trying to preserve their territory. While all are looking for new vertical market opportunities, IDC's belief is that the real future differentiator for SAN vendors will be in the software.
In the end, data is what gives organisations the information they need to succeed. Therefore, IDC believes that to succeed in the years ahead SAN suppliers will need to focus their energies on providing programs that help users unlock the value inherent within the files stored on their computers.
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