Exploding the data storage myth

Contrary to popular belief, it's not cheaper to keep everything

We must explode the myth of cheap data storage. People who say we should save everything because storage is cheap are talking nonsense.

Here’s an example of why: The Air Force learned it had petabytes of stored data, but users had accessed only a relatively small percentage of it in the previous year. People often did not know what information they had in storage, and the task of finding out was too daunting to contemplate. The annual cost of storage technology had reached several hundred million dollars for the Air Force, and it continued to grow.

Officials realized that vast amounts of data kept going into storage, little ever came back out, no one knew what was stored, and the costs kept mounting. The Air Force’s conclusion: We are creating giant information landfills.

In a civilian agency with which I am familiar, nearly two-thirds of the data stored on the primary storage-area network server has sat unused for four years. Agency managers clamor for more storage and servers, while a big chunk of rarely used data sits untouched — an obviously inefficient use of resources.

The storage technology industry has sold a false bill of goods. Individual items of storage technology might be cheap and effective, but storage devices multiply by the hundreds unless they are managed well. The total cost can be staggering. Nearly every government agency is probably misusing data storage technology and, in the process, wasting significant amounts of scarce resources.

Storing information is not the same as managing information. For example, e-mail archiving avoids actually managing the messages by capturing all of them to storage devices and stacking them in a dark corner to be forgotten. To be sure, that practice relieves the pressure on crowded servers. But it offers no help when an agency receives a subpoena demanding that officials produce some of the messages in court. In that event, the agency will spend still more money to manually paw through poorly indexed e-mail messages to find the right ones.

Deceptively cheap storage technology has lured agencies to retain information indiscriminately, without periodically culling files and destroying data that has no further use. Agencies seem oblivious to the fact that storing data that serves no further purpose is wasting money that could be spent elsewhere.

If data has enduring value to the agency, records managers should handle it properly so that the data will be retained for a justified time period and then destroyed or moved to permanent archives. If it has no further value now, destroy it now. Alas, storage technology tempts the pack rat in each of us.

Agencies should inventory their storage technology, find out what data is no longer useful and dispose of it. They should stop storing data for indeterminate periods. Above all, they should count the total costs of data storage and then ask themselves whether the costs are justified or represent a waste of taxpayer dollars.

About the Author

Tim Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.

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