Saving Gracefully

Companies of all sizes now face new pressures that dictate how long they must retain information and how readily they must be able to retrieve it. Information life-cycle management, originally pitched to large firms, may help smaller companies as well.

Remember those virtual pets that were all the rage a few holiday seasons back? Inanimate though they may be, the still-popular toys require proper care and feeding. Fail to provide those essentials, and you soon find yourself looking for a virtual pet cemetery.

Information is much like that: each piece has a life span that must be managed properly from cradle to grave. Failure to do so can jeopardize your company’s health in a way that’s anything but virtual.

Increasingly, a key part of that management challenge involves storage. A raft of regulations that mandate how companies store and protect all kinds of data, lawsuits requiring that they produce highly specific information on demand, the need to guard data when disaster strikes, and other pressures have recast storage: it’s no longer viewed as an electronic filing cabinet that’s largely taken for granted, but has become a key aspect of IT strategy.

While some of those pressures, most notably the dictates of Sarbanes-Oxley, initially applied only to large public corporations, their effects are already trickling down to small and midsize businesses (SMBs). These firms must manage data just as professionally as the big guys, providing easy, reliable access to some records and guaranteeing the confidentiality of others. Some of those SMBs may want to go public someday, and they’ll be subject to the same regulations as the Global 1,000. And no business of any size is immune to lawsuits, major or minor disasters, or competitive pressures.

“SMBs’ storage needs aren’t really different than enterprise storage needs,” says Nancy Hurley, a Portland, Oregon-based senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, a data-storage research firm headquartered in Milford, Massachusetts. “They want to effectively utilize resources, reduce total costs, and protect and recover business information like everyone else, just on a smaller scale.”

In the past, that smaller scale meant forgoing certain capabilities that large companies enjoyed. But now, an approach formerly used almost exclusively by giant companies that deal with dozens of terabytes of data is becoming available to — and critical for — smaller companies as well. It’s called information life-cycle management, or ILM.

Although ILM certainly involves storage, security, network hardware, and other technologies, it’s a process, not a product. Or, more accurately, it’s a combination of processes and technologies that manage information at every stage of its life, based on its value to the business. A true end-to-end ILM system includes a comprehensive storage infrastructure, migration software that relocates data automatically, and products for backing up, replicating, archiving, and retrieving information.

Used properly, ILM keeps tabs on data from creation to deletion. Typically, it moves, stores, archives, or removes information with little or no human intervention, based on company policies or priorities, regulatory requirements, or automatic timetables. Ideally, it’s set up so that anything that hasn’t been deleted can be easily retrieved.

Behind every effective ILM effort is a solid strategy, which Hurley says businesses can develop in three simple steps. First, set a value for each type of information. In other words, figure out what the data is worth to the business and what impact its loss might have, then assign it a priority.

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