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Storage Administrators: A Changing of the Guard in IT

by Steve Lefferdink, VP MTI Technology - May 2002

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A Changing of the Guard in Storage
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Steve Lefferdink, MTI

About the Author

Steve Lefferdink is a vice president of Anaheim, Calif.-based MTI Technology Corp. (Nasdaq: MTIC), a leading provider of data storage and business solutions. An early achievement in his long career in technology took place in 1967, when he pioneered the automated teller machine industry by founding Money Machine Inc. Lefferdink sat on several committees in helping establishing electronic transferring of funds and represented that industry to the worldwide financial community. Lefferdink was educated at the University of Nebraska and the International College of Finance in Brussels, Belgium.

To discuss this article with the author,
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Editor's note:- Steve's not scared of mice.

"Don't place too much faith in what SSD companies tell you about the present or the future of the SSD market."
Survivor's Guide to Enterprise SSDs
Editor's intro - Who you going to call? If your computer is haunted... then Ghostbusters... If it needs fixing? Then a vendor qualified service engineer. But just as the Unix servers of the 1980's spawned the job title "Systems Administrator", and the Cisco switches of the 1990's spawned a whole heirarchy of qualified Internetworkers, so too the new business of network data storage in the 2000's demands a new model army. ...Not conscripts nor a volunteer militia, but an experienced elite to guard your valuable data.

Storage Administrators: A Changing of the Guard in IT

The Changing IT Landscape

IT professionals have always had a significant and challenging role in business, tasked with the responsibility of managing the intricate web of systems and networks that keep companies up and running. The constantly evolving IT landscape also demands a high learning curve and the consistent evaluation and implementation of new technologies that present measurable benefits, such as increased productivity, security and cost savings.

One technology that has gained significantly in importance is information storage. Data is being generated at a faster rate than ever before due to a wide variety of factors, including the exponential growth of applications and web-generated content. This has led to significant increases in storage requirements and a larger percentage of IT budgets being allocated for storage purchases. Although the implementation of storage networks was already increasing, the events of September 11 also shed new light on the importance of safeguarding critical data. Storage concepts such as 'disaster recovery,' 'remote mirroring' and 'backup and restore' quickly invaded the consciousness of business management executives everywhere.

Storage Administration Emerges as a Specialty

Until recently, it was rare to find someone with the title of storage administrator within enterprises. But the rapid implementation of storage systems and their complex nature has presented the need for IT personnel with specialized skill sets. Unfortunately, some businesses are approaching this challenge the wrong way. In today's competitive economic climate, there has been a focus on cost-cutting, and IT is no exception. As a result, many network or system administrators are increasingly being charged to take on the role of storage administrator as well. However, the better route for businesses is to hire seasoned administrators whose core competency is in storage. Network and storage administrators certainly play complementary roles. But there are certain complexities involved in storage that differentiate it from other networking technologies.

Many companies push unqualified or inexperienced networking specialists into storage administration. This may seem more cost-effective, but the time required to 'learn the ropes' and gain real-world experience can make this a more expensive option in the long run. Even more importantly, there is very little room for mistakes in storage administration. Unqualified personnel that are not well-versed in storage could make costly, irreparable mistakes that jeopardize data integrity, or worse yet, lose it forever.

Specialized Skill Sets

Storage administrators bring a wealth of specialized skill sets to businesses. They are specially trained to manage centralized, complex and heterogeneous storage environments, and they are experts in safeguarding data and making it continuously available.

For example, storage capacity planning is an art in itself. The storage infrastructure directly affects network performance. If there is insufficient storage capacity to handle data and software applications, the network will inevitably slow down. Since fast access to corporate data directly affects productivity, it is a top priority. Storage administrators must be able to quickly assign new storage and make it available to users. They must also act as 'fortune tellers' of sort. Users are often completely unaware of how much disk space they use, let alone are they able to provide accurate projections of storage and workload requirements for months down the road. The storage administrator must accurately allocate capacity, while keeping a keen eye on future demand.

Storage administrators also need to be adept at managing a wide variety of storage environments comprised of heterogeneous platforms. These environments can range from the more traditional, such as large numbers of servers with direct-attached storage, to newer concepts such as network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SAN). NAS systems have gained in popularity, due to their simplicity, ease of implementation and cost-effectiveness. But at the high end, NAS systems increase in complexity and are best managed by a skilled storage administrator. NAS relocates storage onto its own independent platform, effectively separating file sharing from application serving. Since applications and storage are no longer running on the same system, this frees up file server bandwidth and reduces overhead on existing application servers. SANs largely remain an enterprise-level concept due to their complexity and cost. They effectively consolidate storage resources, provide centralized management of those resources, and are also favored for their scalability and larger capacity.

Storage administrators also need expertise in the various storage topologies and the advantages and disadvantages of each. In addition to popular interfaces such as SCSI and Fibre Channel, a variety of new options are presenting themselves, including iSCSI, InfiniBand and Fibre Channel over IP. Each presents certain benefits. Only by understanding them can administrators determine which one is best for their organization.

Safekeepers of Data

Data is a company's most valuable asset, and it is the responsibility of the storage administrator to protect that data from system failures, viruses and disasters. This concept grew significantly in importance after the events of September 11, as scores of companies were forced to rebuild without their precious data. Storage administrators are experts in formulating and implementing a solid disaster recovery plan. This is key to preventing the loss or contamination of data.

Although the word 'disaster' may conjure up images of floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, the possibility of employee sabotage and computer viruses have also become a reality. Disasters result in lost productivity and profitability, and must be planned for if they are to be survived. Storage administrators must be well-versed in tasks such as backup and restore, virus protection and data replication.

The backup process exists for one purpose: to provide a duplicate set of data that can be used to reload and restore information onto a failed system. Vast amounts of data can be backed up during an overnight window. This reduces restore times in the event of a system failure and increases the chances of maintaining data integrity. In recent times, we've also seen debilitating viruses that have brought businesses to their knees in a matter of minutes. The ability of viruses to spread through e-mail and the Internet has greatly increased the probability of virus infections. Storage administrators must understand anti-virus measures to maximize data security.

Lastly, storage administrators must understand data replication. The disaster recovery process takes several hours to complete, during which time users have no access to data. Since this potential downtime could be very costly, data replication was designed to fill the gap. A secondary server mirrors the data of the primary server in real time and immediately "stands in" should the primary server fail. Once the primary server is fixed, the secondary server re-syncs files to their current state and the primary server resumes its original tasks.

Experience is Everything

Storage is a multi-faceted technology that is best served by specialized storage administrators who are experienced in the management of storage assets. Although businesses benefit the most when network and storage administrators work in tandem, network administrators should focus on the networking environment, while storage administrators concentrate on the storage environment. Businesses will continue to generate massive quantities of data. Their best option is to hire storage administrators who can improve overall efficiency in the usage of storage resources, reduce administration costs, and maximize business productivity by making data continuously available to those who need it.

...MTI Technology profile

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