Employees cause groundswell in network storage: Police it, SRM it, or both

No matter how big the disks, employees always seem to fill them with files. It may be time to institute storage resource management (SRM).

By Elizabeth Ferrarini | Posted Jul 13, 2000
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"Man will use all the space he can." This line from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species provides a good metaphor for the network storage groundswell caused by employees. IT departments that buy more disks willy-nilly to cope with megabytes won't have any more success than if they warded off a flood by piling up more sandbags.

Wanted posters for unruly storage growth could show Windows NT servers as prime culprits. Michael Adams, a storage analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group says it's common for Windows users to create massive amounts of data by downloading and storing Web files on a server, or by copying the entire contents of a PC onto the server. He adds that Windows' crude file-naming schema makes it difficult to locate files and remove them.

Organizations--ranging from Fortune 500 to small businesses--can look forward to an overall increase in capacity per server and the number of servers--regardless of the operating system. Strategic Research's 1999 Network Demographics report says that from 1997 to 2003, a typical site's total server capacity will grow at an annual compounded rate of 44%, whereas the average capacity per server will increase 31% annually. By 2003, the average site server capacity could exceed more than 1.2TB.

To this end, IT departments should expect to be knee-deep in bytes. Strategic Research's report, on the flip side, says that the capacity per site and the number of system administrators needed to manage that capacity will grow 50% annually. In fact, the report says that a typical systems administrator could manage about 200GB of network storage.

What will it cost to manage all this stuff? John Webster, storage analyst and IT adviser at Illuminata Inc., of Nashua, N.H., says the cost of managing per megabyte can range from 5 to 10 times the cost of the physical media. He adds, "Some IT departments have lost control of their costs and even what's on their networks."

Mark Mooney, chief technology officer at Houghton Mifflin, an independent textbook publisher in Boston, Mass., says that the root of the problem is the discipline required by people using the systems. "You need to educate employees nicely about how to manage their network storage."

The importance of policies

How can an IT department put a lid on network storage? Organizations such as Houghton Mifflin and Staples have put in place an IT storage policy, which in some cases has become part of a corporate computer usage policy. An IT storage policy can define what is placed on the server, how much space employees are assigned on the server; and what kinds of housekeeping tasks employees will be asked to carry out if they exceed their space allotment.

A new class of storage management tools, called storage resource management (SRM), provides IT departments with the ammunition to justify a policy, to put the policy in place, and to carry it out painlessly. SRM encompasses central detailed monitoring, alerting, reporting, and tending of specific storage resources, such as disk partitions and files, and the data stored on them in a networked system.

In "Storage Management Software Expands Beyond Backup/HSM," San Jose-based Dataquest Inc. forecasts that SRM products will catapult from $210 million in 1997 to a whopping $1.4 billion by 2002.

Despite preventive tools such as SRM, the need for any type of IT policy can come at the twelfth hour, causing angst among employees. Webster says that IT departments must present this policy using a rationale that employees can tolerate. "They need to understand that managing storage has nothing to do with the cost of the media. Instead, it's about safeguarding their information and making it readily available to them without interruptions."

Making a storage policy a bestseller

Lotus Notes servers reaching 95% capacity and the pressure to contain corporate spending for 1999, propelled Mooney to put a Lotus Notes storage policy in place at Houghton Mifflin. "Ten percent of all corporate spending goes for storage--everything from buying equipment to maintaining it. Since we didn't know what fueled storage growth, we didn't have a systematic way to budget for storage."

Meanwhile, systems administrators feared that several Lotus Notes servers could crash if stuffed beyond their limit. Employees complained of the snail's pace of e-mail via Lotus Notes and the search capability within the Notes database.

A central group of IT systems administrators, assisted by local system administrators, found two consistent usage problems on Sun and IBM servers. First, employees in one division archived documents to Lotus Notes servers, not to the archive server. Second, editors were saving all versions of chapters, both as e-mail attachments and as documents.

Mooney proposed a policy that provided a practical measure for first freeing space on the clogged servers and then containing storage growth on all Notes servers. But, once wind of the policy got out, he says, "Editors I had never met called and said complying with a storage policy would bring them to a grinding halt."

With the CEO's support, Mooney organized a steering committee made up of business managers from each division. "We sent all employees an all-hands memo signed by the CEO," he says. Each department met to discuss the memo. The IT department, with assistance from the business managers, sent files to editorial groups throughout the company. They had to either delete the files, or archive them on a desktop PC. The IT department also met with employees to look at their storage needs."

Houghton Mifflin's network storage policy, which became part of a corporate policy for computer and telephone use, gives employees 100MB of e-mail file space in Lotus Notes. If they exceed the space (as tracked by BMC's Resolve Storage Resource Management suite), the IT department sends them a message. Senior executives who exceed their space get a telephone call from the IT department The policy also outlines a variety of other storage procedures, such as where to store images.

A few weeks after putting the policy in place, Mooney says the capacity on most of the Lotus Notes servers shrank to 70-80%. "We also stayed well within the margin for our budget as a result of not buying more servers."

To date, Mooney says that about 300 employees have exceeded their space allotment. "Most of these are financial people who work with spreadsheets, as well as a lot of executives." He says that employees have learned to manage their space because they now realize that storage costs money.

Keeping the NT islands from sinking

During the next three years, the number of Windows NT servers will grow by 85%, according to Farid Neema, a storage consultant with Peripheral Concepts Inc., of Santa Barbara, Calif. He adds that organizations with hundreds, if not thousands, of Windows NT servers will make good candidates for a corporate storage policy and big spenders on SRM tools: "Using these tools, systems administrators can set space limits and unobtrusively monitor at what rate that space is being used; who is using it and how much they are using; who has taken non-company liberties with their space; and what strategies to take to get it under control."

With Aleutian Islands of disparate Windows NT servers, the IT department at Denver-based Qwest Communications Inc. (formerly U.S. West) prefers to cruise with a few servers before the IT storage policy sets sail across the company to all 50,000 employees. Larry Miner, an IT specialist at Qwest, currently tracks storage usage on 17 servers; each server has about 1,000 employees. Miner's recommendations will go to a corporate compliance group that will make the final decision on another piece of a corporate storage policy. The company's policy specifies what types of files (such as music and executable programs) don't belong on servers, and how long documents can be kept on the server before they must be archived.

Most of Miner's work consists of determining the best way to set space allocations in a mature Windows NT environment where employees have mountains of data. He says, "We decided to assign space allotments to groups of individuals and monitor that space by their directories. Some groups have may have 250MB per individual, while other groups have 500MB per individual."

W. Quinn's Quota Adviser allows Miner to set thresholds on specific space allotments per group by a number of attributes, including files, directories, and disk drives. Whenever someone comes close to exceeding their space allotment, they receive an on-screen, pop-up message from Quota Advisor telling them to remove some documents. Quota Advisor can be set up to padlock the write privileges of employees who exceed their quota and don't free up space.

To make it easy for employees to manage their space and keep calls to the IT department at a minimum, Miner uses W. Quinn's Disk Advisor, in conjunction with Quota Adviser. Disk Advisor allows Miner to run a number of real-time canned reports, such as a listing of duplicate files across different directories, or a listing of files with certain extensions, such as .wav. He says, "If someone wants a larger directory space, we can run a report on their disk drive and point them to files they may want to delete or archive. We'll soon be able to send them the Disk Advisor report as a Web page. This way they can automatically delete the files."

Miner plans to use another W. Quinn product to put a padlock on the specific types of files that don't belong on the server.

Meanwhile, large networking outsourcing organizations may soon realize the value-added service in helping their customers carry out a storage policy using SRM tools. For example, EDS Systemhouse (Manitoba, Canada) currently tracks storage usage for a customer with 10,000 employees.

Balancing storage space requires diplomacy

When it comes to storage policies, some organizations adhere to a friendly union of church and state. The corporate storage policy outlines what types of files employees can store on servers and desktops. Likewise, the IT department acts as a watch dog for the corporate policy, and at the same time, carries out its own space usage policy. That's how Staples, the office superstore, fastens its storage policies. In fact, Staples' corporate storage policy, which covers Internet use, says that employees must use their server directory for business documents only. As an adjunct to this policy, each IT group in Staples assigns employees in specific departments a flexible amount of personal space on the server. Either, way, the IT departments use SRM tools to clip storage growth before it turns into a paper tiger.

Helen Flanagan, a Windows NT systems administrator at Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Inc.'s corporate office uses HighGround's Web-based Storage Resource Manager across 75 servers to look at historical space reports by attributes such as servers, directories, partitions and users. Like W. Quinn's Quota Advisor, Storage Resource Manager allows her to set thresholds on a number of storage attributes, such as disk, partitions, and users; and she receives alerts if those attributes approach or bypass a threshold. She says, "Sometimes people will forget to delete log files or manuals. The alert allows you to talk with them about their storage."

Flanagan adds that giving all employees the same amount of space seems suited for an environment where a lot of users perform one specific function. But for a growing environment, she says you need to identify and talk with individuals about their storage needs. "Perhaps someone has a different requirement than you initially considered. You have to accommodate any future storage needs they might have. These things are key."

Locking the doors for space abusers

Even with a corporate storage policy and/or an IT storage policy, systems administrators may need to take out the SRM handcuffs and clamp them on space hogs. John Moeller, a Windows NT administrator at Afga/Bayer Inc., of Charleston, S.C., has worked diligently to curb network storage abuses. At the company, a server crashed when an employee decided to back up an entire desktop database to the server. "When I came back from lunch, the server was down because someone had taken up 100MB of space."

The company's corporate computer policy outlines what types of information employees can store. Each IT group decides how it will oversee network storage. Moeller uses Astrum Software's StorCast SAM, a space monitoring and alerting product similar to W. Quinn's Quota Advisor, to make sure employees stay within their 40MB allotment. When they hit 20MB, StorCast automatically sends them a message about their space and the need to remove files. StorCast will continue to send notices. Upon reaching the 40MB limit, the employee won't be able to store any more files on the disk because of the padlock placed by StorCast--the employee must free up space or call the IT department. Although this might sound like a drastic measure, Moeller says, "You can store a lot of spreadsheets and never get beyond 20MB. If you start downloading games, then you'll quickly fill up your space."

Network storage policies should travel beyond the limits of space

As you refine your policy, you'll want to establish backup procedures for mobile employees or enlist an e-storage service for mobile backups. Decide what to do with files when employees leave the organization or transfer to a different department. Also, gather historical data about storage patterns for capacity planning, budgeting, and look at the feasibility of doing storage chargebacks to departments.

Elizabeth M. Ferrarini is a Boston, Mass., journalist and the author of several books about online services.

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