Storage help is just on the horizon

Storage technologies are most often associated with hardware, but the future of storage is in software. The term storage virtualisation has been thrown about recently. But like most new ideas, this concept is little understood and a little ahead of its time.

Although storage technologies are most often associated with hardware, the future of storage is in software. For the better part of two years, most people in IT have been hearing the term storage virtualisation thrown about. But like most new ideas, this concept is little understood and a little ahead of its time.

The basic concept is that accessing data should be transparent to anyone who is authorised to use that data, regardless of where that data is stored in the network. This means end users should not have to know anything about storage devices and the format of the data that resides on those devices.

The only way to accomplish this today is to acquire and deploy a handful of proprietary, expensive software products that require time to master. As a result, storage virtualisation technology remains outside the reach of the average IT organisation.

But none of this means we should give up hope. Companies such as Microsoft are finally getting serious about storage and we should expect to see some innovative approaches to virtualisation that leverage web services and XML. XML provides a self-describing, data-neutral file format that can sit on top of a storage solution, while web services provides the infrastructure to point to and call that data.

This means that the concept of pervasive storage across the enterprise becomes possible, where cache memory and storage devices are conscious of each other, and data follows users across the network regardless of the their location and device.

Odds are good that you will see storage vendors such as Network Appliances and EMC working with Microsoft to create this architecture, but it's unknown how other companies will respond to the challenge. IBM, Sun, Hitachi, and Hewlett-Packard all derive a phenomenal amount of revenue from storage sales and it's unlikely that Microsoft will come up with a solution that spans all the platforms of the enterprise given its predisposition toward Windows.

The question is, will these companies come up with their own solutions? Or will they prefer to work with established companies such as Veritas or FujitsuTek or startup vendors such as XDegrees, which is expected to roll out an XML-based virtualisation offering that spans multiple platforms later this year?

Whatever happens, these solutions should go a long way toward making storage hardware a commodity. The amount of money devoted to storage in IT budgets has been a sore point with IT executives for years, especially considering that while disk drive prices continue to fall, storage subsystems pricing has stayed about the same and in some cases has risen.

None of this is going to happen overnight. But for the first time in a very long time, IT people have reason for optimism about being able to better manage storage assets and rein in costs.

Given the generally bleak financial outlook for 2002, that is indeed something to look forward to as we start to think about IT budgets for 2003.

Vizard is editor in chief of US IDG publication InfoWorld.

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