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COVID-19 forced many IT teams to change their approach to data storage management in 2020. In response to the outbreak, organizations flocked to the cloud, updated storage operations, virtualized desktop delivery and took several other steps to adapt to the new reality. Many of these changes are likely to stick around even after the pandemic subsides.
However, not all storage administrators are experiencing the same issues, said Jim Handy, general director at research firm Objective Analysis. "An admin in the brick-and-mortar retail sector is likely to be underworked, while storage admins who deal with work from home, home entertainment, online purchasing and gaming are probably burning the midnight oil just to keep up with a surge in demand."
Despite the differences among industries, most storage admins have modified their routines to address changing requirements for data storage management in 2020. Here, we look at seven new trends that have emerged and what they might mean to storage in a post-COVID-19 world.
1. Moving to the cloud
Probably the biggest impact of the pandemic on data storage management has been an accelerated move to the cloud, accompanied by decreasing on-premises storage sales. Because of the surging growth in e-business, companies that had been slow to adopt cloud-based storage and other cloud services are now moving to the cloud, Handy said. "It's difficult to add hardware as fast as the market is growing. Cloud-based services make scaling so much easier," he said.
Tom Coughlin, president of consulting firm Coughlin Associates, agreed, noting that the use of online resources and cloud storage has led to larger cloud data centers. He also expects this trend will continue. "Even after the pandemic has passed it's likely many folks will work remotely more often than in the past, continuing demand for enterprise online and cloud storage," he said.
There's good reason for this. Cloud storage can simplify IT operations, free up administrators for other tasks and make it easier for them to manage storage remotely. However, they must still address issues such as data migration, systems integration, security and compliance, while weighing the long-term costs of subscription fees.
2. Embracing multi-platform configurations
Despite the cloud migration, many organizations continued to maintain some storage on premises. This has often meant implementing hybrid- or multi-cloud strategies or deploying other solutions, such as moving storage to the edge to accommodate specific use cases. IT teams have had to come up with innovative ways to deliver data where it's needed, while ensuring the necessary performance, integration and data protections.
Many organizations were already moving to multi-platform configurations before the pandemic hit and will likely continue doing so in a post-COVID-19 world. Multi-platform configurations offer more flexible infrastructure than traditional approaches, while helping to extend services across boundaries. Storage administrators must come up with integrated and secure storage systems that can bridge multiple environments and deliver the necessary services. NVMe-oF is one such technology. The protocol is "fueling the development of specialized processors closer to or in the storage devices," benefiting computational storage and edge environments, Coughlin said.
3. When everybody's remote
Larger remote workforces have strained internal storage systems and the administrators who run them. Not only has this meant implementing new data storage management systems in 2020 or enhancing existing ones, but it has also left storage admins dealing with the challenges of a remote workforce, such as people operating with limited bandwidth in less secure environments and adopting informal work habits. At the same time, many storage administrators are also working remotely, complicating their jobs even more.
However, a remote workforce also offers benefits, and once the pandemic subsides, organizations will likely continue supporting remote workers. Storage managers will need to ensure their storage systems have the performance and capacity to support these workers.
This change will require the right technologies. For example, in his discussion about NVMe-oF, Coughlin said the use of Ethernet as an NVMe-oF is "leading to ways to offload CPUs using specialized processing devices and move to truly Ethernet-based storage." With this technology, IT gets the benefits of an Ethernet fabric, while being able to deliver better performance to data-driven applications, ultimately benefiting both administrators and remote workers.
4. Virtualizing desktop delivery
More attention to supporting remote workers has meant more virtual desktops. In some cases, IT teams have opted for desktop as a service (DaaS), in others VDI, either on premises or on cloud platforms. Organizations that already supported VDI may have needed to beef up their storage systems and take other steps to accommodate the increased loads.
Virtual desktops, especially DaaS, simplify desktop deployment and data storage management. That's why many organizations are likely to stick with virtualization after the pandemic. However, administrators must ensure the virtual desktops have adequate storage resources to meet performance and capacity requirements. For DaaS, this might translate to additional subscription fees. For VDI, it can mean buying more storage or implementing enhancements, such as all-flash arrays. If organizations support distributed VDI, they must also address the complexities that come with redundancy, data sharing and collaboration.
5. Adjusting storage operations
In the past 10 months, most storage administrators have had to modify their operations, with changes taking many forms. Sales of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) are up, indicating some admins have turned to this technology, which makes it easier to deploy and manage server and storage resources. Organizations are also turning to storage as a service (STaaS) to limit Capex spending and simplify procurement, deployment and, in some cases, ongoing maintenance. In addition, they're relying more on the cloud for IT management services that help streamline infrastructure operations.
HCI appliances, STaaS and cloud services simplify data storage management and make it easier to manage storage remotely. Most teams were already looking for ways to help streamline operations prior to COVID-19 to better deal with heterogenous data and support modern applications, which are often distributed and require flexible infrastructure. The pandemic has accelerated those efforts.
6. Deploying smarter storage solutions
The pandemic has provided a graphic reminder of the importance of intelligence and automation in supporting storage systems. Data storage management tools that incorporate AI, machine learning, predictive analytics and other advanced technologies can identify and resolve storage issues faster, especially when used in conjunction with automation. Intelligent, automated storage has been particularly useful during the pandemic, helping optimize performance, resolve issues faster, reduce manual operations and ensure security and compliance.
Part of the challenge of data storage management in 2020 has been that the pandemic brought with it many staff reductions, said Scott Reder, principal storage specialist at Ahead, a cloud solutions and services provider. These reductions have "increased focus on automation tools to extend the coverage of smaller storage administration teams."
7. Adopting new storage technologies
Storage managers must figure out ways to move forward with their storage strategies to avoid being unprepared for COVID-19's inevitable end. However, not all organizations are facing the same challenges. The pandemic's impact on administrators varied greatly by business segment, Reder said, based on what he's seen of Ahead's customer base. For example, some industries, such as airlines and healthcare systems that relied on elective procedures, had to figure out ways to address cash flow issues.
"For storage administrators, this meant postponing capital purchases and finding other ways to address growth or lifecycle events," Reder said. Data archival for file and NAS storage is one way to create capacity headroom, either using native features within primary storage systems or purpose-built file analysis and archive solutions, he said. This in turn has created interest in low-cost object storage as an archive target, particularly from the major cloud PaaS offerings, Reder added.
Despite the differences among industries, most IT teams have had to balance pandemic challenges against investing in technology that looks to the future. At the same time, they must proceed in a way that recognizes how the world has changed, while recognizing the need for agility coupled with high-performing systems.
For example, Coughlin noted the Gen-Z and Compute Express Link standards are poised to have a great effect on future memory architectures. "They're made to handle heterogenous memory devices and will fuel greater and more effective use of emerging memories," he said. Such technologies can enable organizations to move forward with their business strategies, while helping to optimize data and storage environments.
For IT teams, however, procuring and deploying new technologies can be a challenge even under the best circumstances. With the pandemic, it's more difficult than ever. For example, the logistics of having people on site to deploy new equipment is more complicated. Even the process of buying storage has changed, as meetings with vendor sales staff are mostly all virtual.
Moving forward, many IT teams and storage administrators will use the challenges they've faced with data storage management in 2020 as a launching point for implementing systems that respond faster to change, while minimizing overhead and streamlining operations. If the technologies they choose don't support these goals, they risk being stuck in a pre-COVID-19 wasteland incapable of meeting future business demands.