User survey reveals ILM reality

By Dr. James E. Short

—Storage, IT, and records managers hold widely differing views of information lifecycle management (ILM), according to a recent survey of 345 IT and data management professionals conducted by StorageNetworking.org and the Information Storage Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego.

When asked to define ILM, respondents fell back on what they were familiar with and/or responsible for. For example, about two-thirds of respondents with management responsibilities (e.g., IT project managers) define ILM as a management policy initiative. Conversely, respondents with technical responsibilities (e.g., software engineers) split evenly between management policy and technical definitions of ILM.

Respondents were skeptical of ILM vendors' marketing promises, stating that ILM has the potential to introduce a greater number of problems than it can solve. There was a general concern that technology is being thrown at what is intrinsically a soft side issue—namely, management control (agreement) over data, across functions, departments, and individuals in the enterprise. Whether ILM can serve to focus business and technical management to work together to solve the difficult issues of data ownership, data value, and communications across the enterprise remains to be seen. Without this partnership, however, survey respondents saw little hope that ILM could evolve successfully.

The 345 survey participants were drawn from the StorageNetworking.org community, from members of the American Records Management Association (ARMA), and other sources.

The slight majority (52%) of respondents defined ILM as a policy-based approach to improving records and information management in their companies. However, slightly less than half (40%) of the respondents saw ILM as a technical and systems management issue, addressing the natural progression of improvements in storage systems and software.

ILM benefits and drawbacks
Survey respondents saw the main benefits of ILM as increasing control over data management, ensuring regulatory compliance (minimizing risk), and potentially reducing costs (by eliminating inefficiencies in data storage).

These benefits were echoed by others who said that ILM benefits were tied to improved management control of data, improved policy focus on information, and greater attention (and resources) to the storage systems providing it. For example, respondents often cited the following benefits:

  • Policy-based storage;
  • Creating a structure for data management;
  • Controlling storage growth; and
  • Lower TCO.

Conversely, some respondents felt that there was no immediate benefit to ILM. Rather, they stated that other organizational and systems work needed to precede ILM before it could have an impact. As one respondent summarized: "The benefits of ILM are not yet fully available, meaning that adequate organizational and categorization tools that can handle the varying rules of retention and appropriate disposal efficiently...are not in place."

The picture that emerges is that respondents did see that when properly defined and implemented, ILM potentially could improve management control over data and reduce storage costs. As another respondent wrote, the benefits include "a sense of order and the ability to 'understand' our data so that we don't over-purchase hardware or follow the 'tack-on-more' methodology when we think we're short."

However, while respondents cited cost, compliance, management control, and improved policy focus on information as potential benefits, when asked what the drawbacks of ILM were, several of the same factors surfaced not as benefits, but as drawbacks. Respondents stated that cost, complexity, lack of standards, confusion in the marketplace, and the required up-front investments in process, applications, and hardware were all significant drawbacks to ILM.

Respondents also noted that potential ILM drawbacks included human resource factors and the difficulties of obtaining commitment across organizational lines.

In the aggregate, our sample respondents saw more drawbacks to ILM than benefits. Most often-cited drawbacks included complexity of implementation, lack of accepted definitions and standards, and adoption and implementation costs. As one survey respondent said, the management dilemma posed by ILM is that, "today, ILM presents a full additional layer of infrastructure and management. Until a company reaches a very high threshold of usage, its TCO is unacceptably high."

Interpretation and implications
The picture emerging from our survey points to lack of a common definition and understanding of what ILM represents. This includes what activities fall under the ILM umbrella, how ILM is implemented, and what are the main benefits and drawbacks of ILM.

Faced with the question of what ILM is, respondents fall back on what they are familiar with. That is, respondents define ILM in conjunction with the IT or storage activity they are working on (e.g., backup and restore or data classification/migration), or they see ILM as a management policy issue potentially one or two steps removed from their immediate work responsibilities.

A second point is the lack of consistency in identifying the hard and soft benefits and drawbacks of ILM. Factors such as cost, complexity, better access to information, etc., were cited both as potential benefits and as potential drawbacks. This observation suggests that until the ILM message is more consistent and the implementation record more advanced, inconsistencies in stating the potential benefits, drawbacks, and costs of ILM will continue.

Third, some frustration with the state of ILM is evident in respondents' answers to our open-ended questions. There is a view that vendors are attaching the "ILM solution" tag to existing product offerings, heightening confusion as to what ILM represents and how it can be best evaluated and implemented. Survey respondents made several comments regarding piecemeal offerings from vendors, lack of common approaches and terminology, and the risk of vendor lock-in if a commitment is made.

Users are also concerned that the technology is being thrown at what is essentially a soft side issue—management control (agreement) over data, and across business functions, departments, and individuals in the company. The organizational integration needed to produce agreement depends heavily on the strength of partnerships between line business management and IT/storage management. That successful ILM practice may ultimately depend on the strength of this partnership is neither positive nor negative. Rather, the question is more whether the needed alignment between business and IT/storage will be successful.

This article is excerpted from a larger report. To read the full report, visit www.storagenetworking.org/Research/research_paper_detail.asp?id=248.

James E. Short is director of research for the Information Storage Industry Center (ISIC) at the University of California, San Diego. The ISIC is a university-based, management research program studying the business applications and economics of advanced storage technologies. ISIC's program areas include industry studies (competitive dynamics, product innovation and manufacturing, industry structure), business innovation and applications of advanced storage systems (data management, data mining, distributed information management), and storage management. The ISIC works closely with the StorageNetworking.org community.

This article was originally published on May 24, 2006