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The Changing Rules of the Storage Game
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www.computerworld.com 12/4/00

John Gantz, Computer World

Storage ought to be one of those things that IT managers can deal with out of their back pockets. Need more? Just buy more disks.
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Are there trusty rules of thumb for this? Not on your life. It's a complex equation that drives demand for data storage in enterprises, and all the old rules of thumb are changing.

I learned about this from a white paper, "Rules of Thumb in Data Engineering," written by Jim Gray and Prashant Shenoy of Microsoft and presented at last spring's IEEE International Conference on Data Engineering. (You can read the paper at http://research.microsoft.com/~gray.)

Some key points:

• Because the growth of disk capacity is outpacing that of speed to access the disk, the system "cost" of access is rising. Data engineers are working on schemes where the disks are accessed sequentially, like tape drives, rather than randomly to keep the cost of these "fetches" down.

• Tape drives are being relegated to use as data archives because it can take days to reload all the information in a multiterabyte tape drive. Automated tape libraries help, turning off-line storage into near-line storage, but disk drives are almost as economical. Many companies now keep an entire set of duplicate disk systems at remote locations as backups.

• RAM costs are falling faster than the costs of magnetic storage. A megabyte of RAM used to cost 10 times as much as a megabyte of disk RAM and 1,000 times as much as tape RAM. Now, 1MB of RAM costs only three times as much as 1MB of disk RAM and 10 times as much as tape RAM. So when in doubt, put it in RAM.

To net it out, processor speed improvements are outpacing main memory improvements, which are outpacing magnetic media access time improvements. More information on disk must be cached so that the information on the disk can be read sequentially, and the caches themselves must get bigger in order to keep memory full.

Put anything over a network, and the storage equation grows even more complex. The overhead of sending messages around wide-area networks is so much more than sending a message from a computer to a disk drive that, according to Gray and Shenoy, it pays to cache any Web page that will ever be called up again.

There are four implications for IT professionals. One is that the performance of tomorrow's systems will be at least as dependent on the data transfer and caching software running on them as on the hardware itself. Second, the proliferation of caches in and around the network will stress current system management tools. Third, storage dynamics and optimal system design will vary from application to application with, say, scientific computing and Internet commerce representing two extremes. Fourth, no one but you will understand this.

Designing multiple, complex applications will be tough enough in the next few years. Deciding how to optimize performance by implementing storage management systems will add to the challenge. How much do you cache? Where do you locate proxy servers? Do you go with RAID 5 (efficient with space) or mirroring (efficient with access)? And so on.

This is the rocket science of IT systems management. It's not something others in your organization care to know about or are even capable of appreciating. But you should.

John Gantz is a senior vice president at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

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