In Data A Growing Burden

December 22, 2006
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As if it were bunnies, locusts or some ever-spreading mythical blight, electronic information is becoming an ever-increasing burden for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Over the next four years, U.S. shipments of digital storage capacity are expected to increase 900-fold. The cost and capacity of storage hardware does continue to improve, but it remains to be seen whether advancements will outpace the growing demand.

"It's a many-headed monster," said Jason Kuipers, president of Grand Rapids-based data management company Hi-Tech Information Processing Products, which does business as hi-tech inc. "This explosive growth in data that we're seeing is universal. It is not going to stop. You have to find space."

This is partly a product of the way business is done today, Kuipers said, as business functions become increasingly automated and operations increasingly virtual. The growth of high-speed Internet use and portable devices has created an explosion of e-mail to be archived and managed. Some of these files can be painfully large, with pictures, audio files and PowerPoint presentations now common e-mail attachments.

Now, new concerns for regulatory compliance and disaster recovery are working to double, even triple a company's data storage needs. Both the Sarbanes-Oxley Act standards for publicly traded companies and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act standards for health care organizations have clauses concerning the storage and retrieval of electronic information.

This month, a new set of federal guidelines went into effect that theoretically applies to all businesses. The new regulations, adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in response to a series of frustrating cases dating back to the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, says that businesses must be able to quickly find relevant electronic information when required by federal court. Every electronic document stored by businesses — e-mail, instant messages, financials, voice mail and all test and graphical documents — must be easily retrievable.

"This has made managing data that much more complex and costly," said Michael Noordyk, president of Trivalent Group, a local information technology firm. "Now, it's not just backing it up, you have to be able to retrieve it and retrieve it fast. … The challenge is going to be in the shifting paradigm, as smaller companies realize they have to do this."

On the plus side, hardware prices are decreasing rapidly. Although it's difficult to make a direct comparison, a gigabyte of capacity on the consumer market a decade ago would have cost thousands of dollars; today it can be found on key chains for $50 or less.

The storage area networks commonly used in business data centers have seen similar advances, in addition to more efficient management practices, such as consolidation. Hi-tech has found that systems using a network of servers, commonly called "islands" or "silos," can provide utilization rates of only 5 percent to 30 percent.

"Instead of having all these silos growing separately that you have to manage with different resources and people, it's much more cost-effective to bring all these together in a central location," said Kuipers.

A related practice gaining in popularity is virtualization, the simulation of several virtual "machines" on top of a centralized data solution that allows greater utilization rates and easier access to multiple layers of information.

Most companies will find that their largest efforts toward increasing data efficiency will center on policy rather than hardware. In the case of the federal court regulations, for instance, there is an exception for information deleted as part of regular maintenance procedures, if defined in company policy.

"There are many different kinds of information and you need to determine what is important," said Kuipers. "You need to create hierarchies of data."

This becomes a particular concern for backups and disaster recovery procedures. Mission critical information needs to be available at a moment's notice, while other information might not be needed ever again. Significant cost savings can be found by storing low priority data in inexpensive tape archives.

"The key thing for clients to get around is that there can be multiple data in multiple places," said Bob Milne, managed services leader for Grand Rapids information technology company CPR. "Quite often, we'll find lots of duplicate files in different stages of aging that haven't been accessed in a long time. You need to set policies in how you retain data."

Of equal importance, Milne stressed, is ensuring those policies are followed. If data that is supposed to be deleted is not, the company could forfeit any protection it would have had in a legal discovery process.      

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