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I recently met with Mark Shirman, CEO and Founder of Glasshouse Technologies and had the opportunity to get another exclusive Hot Aisle interview. Mark is uniquely placed to comment on the recent changes in the Data Center and Storage markets with particular emphasis on Green issues.

For many years Glasshouse has been the leading independent Storage consultancy until last year you acquired RapidApp, DCMI and this year, TPP Group in the Data Centre market. What was your thinking in making these acquisitions and how have they shaped up? Have you done any interesting projects in this space?

“The acquisitions we made were strategic to our company’s growth. We had several objectives in mind with each acquisition – to broaden our service offerings to our customers, to deepen our technical expertise, and to expand into new geographical markets. RapidApp added server virtualization services to our offerings while DCMI provided unique software tools and deepened our existing expertise in data center services. TPP added skills to our already rich storage services. All of these acquistions served to help GlassHouse grow into it’s larger mission of helping businesses consolidate, virtualize and manage their data infrastructure.

We’ve done a few key projects in these new markets, with plenty more in the pipeline. It’s still relatively early – we’ve been doing a lot of work internally to educate our teams around the new service areas and develop offerings that meld with the way GlassHouse supports its customers. A couple of notable projects include work at BT to help them achieve their goals of ‘green IT’ and consolidate their data centers to run more efficiently, at higher utilization rates using less power and with reduced hardware occupying their data center floor. We’ve been working with one of the US’s largest healthcare providers to virtualize their x86 servers and create a DR plan for 200 of their Linux and Windows servers.”

Environmental issues and energy costs are big concerns for the CTO community these days, what are Glasshouse doing to help? Do you have any advice to offer us poor beleaguered Data Centre guys?

“There’s all kinds of hype out there about new ‘green’ technology and what that will do for your IT environment… which is fine, if you can afford to replace your IT infrastructure with all new hardware and software and somehow manage that process without a hiccup to the business. That’s just not a practical option for most of us. What we have consistently found at GlassHouse is that reducing your carbon footprint, minimizing any negative impact on the environment and lowering your energy costs can all be achieved with the very simple strategy of efficiency. And don’t confuse simple with easy – sometimes the simplest approach is still tough to implement.

At GlassHouse, our consultants focus on maximizing assets you already have, not selling you more stuff. We’re vendor independent, so we don’t have a stake in what technology you choose, and more often than not, we’ll tell you that your technology doesn’t matter. There are lots of great tools out there and most likely, you’ve already invested in some. So our job is to help you design and integrate your technology for maximum efficiency, which often involves consolidation and virtualization of your assets. This means you have fewer boxes on floor taking up less floor space, and all that translates into less technology to power and cool and maintain, fewer licenses to manage and a smaller carbon footprint.

As for advice – I’d say focus on your processes and your people and work smarter with the technology you have. You can achieve a lot of progress towards your ‘green data center’ goals if you explore what consolidation and virtualization can do for your utilization rates as well as power and cooling bills.”

Data leakage and data loss are areas that many CTOs loose sleep over, have you any advice on best practice in this area? (I am thinking particularly about the loss of RBS and Nat West credit card application forms recently from third party supplier Graphic Data.)

“The best advice we can give any CTO or CIO is, BE PROACTIVE. Some of the practices we emphasize to our customers are:

Enact strict document control standards – Most companies don’t actually do this because it’s very costly from a technological standpoint. However, there are ways to implement document controls on a limited basis, which is very important for documents containing sensitive information. You don’t need to spend a fortune tiering every piece of data that flows through your company, although you could. What’s critical is looking at which documentation holds sensitive data and putting access controls in place.

Background checks – It is difficult to 100% stop anyone ‘on the inside’ from causing damage if that’s what they really want to do, but you can minimize the risk by being thorough and proactive. Running background checks on anyone in the company who has access to sensitive data should be standard procedure, but again, there are many companies out there who don’t follow through.

Trust but verify. You want to trust your employees but you also need to be vigilant. If you’ve done the background check and implemented document access controls, then verifying the activities of your team members should be a relatively simple task. But don’t let familiarity relax your standards. The longer an employee is with the company, the greater the risk he or she can pose, should he/she want to.

Encrypt your backup tapes. There have been enough stories about tapes stolen off the back end of trucks transporting tapes to a secure, off-site location, and yet this is still a practice companies discuss rather than just do. Off-site isn’t enough. There is really no reason why you shouldn’t encrypt your backup tapes. By not doing it, you leave yourself wide open to both internal and external threats.”

Many technology companies are starting to feel the squeeze on revenues and margins as a result of the sub-prime problem impacting the financial sector. Glasshouse are a global business so exposed to both US clients and Europeans. How are you finding the business climate right now and are there any noticeable differences between the US and Europe?

“Actually, we’ve watched the market move to this ‘belt-tightening’ mindset over the past several months. It’s not a sudden changed based on today’s news crisis. In fact, Americans are generally terribly optimistic and up until the past few weeks, I believe many businesses harbored hopes that we’d sail past this – perhaps with just a few choppy waves – and push on through to next year. The recent acquisitions and government bailout plan has finally shoved any last vestiges of optimism overboard.

Our European customers are expressing the same concern and cautious approach, but their cycles typically run several months behind the trends we see here in the US. I think the difference in Europe is that they’ve been watching this from afar and did not harbor any of our idealistic optimism – we’ve already experienced our European customers streamlining and deferring projects due to shrinking budgets. Right now, I believe Europe is waiting to see what move the US makes and what the initial effects are on the US economy.

We haven’t seen the worst of it and suspect 2009 will be a much more difficult year for US businesses as they ‘hunker down’ and figure out strategies for getting through a tough economic climate.”

Have Glasshouse a view on Storage Virtualization and the benefits it might afford to large scale users of enterprise storage?

“The high rate of data growth and subsequent storage requirements makes storage management increasingly difficult, and I would argue near impossible, without taking advantage of the virtualization technology that’s out there. Virtualization technology is being incorporated in all products, at all levels, and promises better manageability, improved efficiency and utilization, and scalability. With appropriate technology and process integration, virtualization within the storage environment is critical to successfully managing your storage and backup requirements.”

There seems to be a split forming in the enterprise storage market between, top end, high performance, muscle arrays (EMC DMX, tagmastore, DS8000) and lower end arrays using commodity components and smart software (Pyramid, 3PAR, XIV). Have you any views about what is going on and how the market is going to pan out?

“The newer technology players have staked out the lower- and mid-tier markets, and they support those customers needs. However, the enterprise arrays aren’t going anywhere – not only are they robust enough to serve enterprise-level requirements (such as advanced replication capabilities), but they are continually innovating their products for more versatility and scalability. Over time, the increased high-end functionality will be pushed into the mid- and lower-market tiered products, but which players adapt to, and are adopted by, the enterprise remains to be seen.”

Enterprise Storage has always been about Fibre connections, Ficon and Fibre Channel via Storage Area Networks, with the entry of Cisco and the increasing use of IP in the storage space, how do Glasshouse see the market changing and over what timeframe?

“There is a very strong push by the vendors right now for common data center connectivity. Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) isn’t going anywhere, but it will take time to evolve – probably a slow and steady path. Initially, more of host interconnect and storage will still be fiber channel connected, but as more products are introduced that support 10gig Ethernet and FCoE, more companies will adopt it. New data centers being built out will most likely include this new technology, but I would estimate a five year growth process for FCoE to become commonly adopted.”

What is happening in the backup market? We seem to have had a move towards keeping everything on-line on disk (often because it is too hard to work out what can be deleted or archived). This seems to be counter intuitive with the increasing costs of energy and limited capacity in the data centre. What is the Glasshouse view?

“IT departments are moving to disk because it provides a backup and recovery system that works reliably and predictably. So the energy argument is that while tapes on a shelf require no power, but the fact is that when your tape drives *are* operating, they require a substantial amount of power. Your disk systems are running 24×7, yes, but they use power much more efficiently and, when you add in deduplication, you reduce the number of disk drives that need to operate. So there are now reports floating out there that show how the energy costs of a disk-based system can be equal to or even lower than tape. Now of course, there are all kinds of factors that play into this number, but it is possible to achieve energy reduction when investing in a disk-based system and leveraging deduplication.

Deduplication and disk-based systems will continue to be adopted at a brisk pace because while enterprises have to be sensitive to energy consumption and their carbon footprint – their budgets, corporate initiatives and stakeholders demand it – they also have to look for the most efficient, secure and reliable way to manage their backups.”

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