Thursday 19 December 2013

Object Storage - unsung hero of Cloud and Big Data

They say that information is power, but in a world where the majority of information is digitised and stored electronically, it can only be realised if the information can be found and within the context of what you need to know. Digital information needs to be contextual and retrievable. 

This has long been solved in the case of structured data which resides within databases. These provide relational context and indexes for search and retrieval. But what about unstructured file data which is where the vast majority of information now lives? The current term for this challenge is Big Data. 

One of the key technologies which will help with this challenge is little known and does not come with a fancy title – it is called object storage.

To best explain what object storage is we need to start with the ones and zeros of data, then work our way towards the information that we intend to work with.

Hard drives are at the heart of most storage systems today. Data is retained in blocks of ones and zeros. SAN storage systems expose these blocks to the applications running on connected servers. This can be highly efficient, for example with databases which require fast granular access to the data.

Users however, typically need to work with files like spreadsheets, Word documents, slide-decks, images, emails etc. Each file comprises of a sequenced number of blocks of data which together combine to make the file. Furthermore, the file must reside in a file system which provides a nested folder structure so its location can be indexed. This functionality is provided by an operating system which sits logically above the hard drives. This can be integrated into the storage system (making it a NAS device) or can be external in the form of a server (File Server) or dedicated appliance (NAS gateway or header).

SAN and NAS respectively provide block and file access to data and this has historically catered for most organisations’ needs. However, there are some shortcomings. The fastest growing form of data is unstructured or file data. Files are getting bigger, more numerous and rarely get deleted. As file systems get larger, so they slow down and in fact have hard limits to their scalability. They are also restrictive in the way that information can be searched due to the non-contextual nature of the nested folder structure (which is determined largely by individual users). This system works OK at an individual level because we all apply some logic to how we organise our files. However, at an organisational level, this logic is unknown. So for instance, finding all files which contain “confidential information” relating to a particular customer, might be nigh on impossible. 

With object storage, we have the ability to build context and structure right into the file itself. To achieve this, we wrap the file with “metadata”. This is information about the file. The combination of data and metadata is called an object.

This sounds simple, but the implications are enormous.

Scalability and Performance. Object stores remove the nested folder structure which is the barrier to very large datasets. Information is found instead by searching through the metadata for what you need. It is similar to the way search engines find information on the internet. If you like your files structured by date, by customer, by whatever – not a problem. This can be added into the metadata. You can even simulate a whole nested folder system by including the path in the metadata for each object.

Big Data. Because objects have contextual information included, organisations can search across datasets and extract just the information they need. A great example would be in a hospital environment. It is quite possible to store patient records such that personal identifiable information is retained in metadata and access to this restricted. Analytics could be run across patient data with total anonymity retained.

Cloud. Massive scale plus the ability to apply security policies to data based on fields within the metadata makes object storage a great solution for service providers who store data on behalf of customers. Storage can be carved up into virtual containers based on who owns the data (multi-tenancy). This is exactly what the likes of Amazon, Google and many others are basing their businesses on.

Archive. One of the key uses of metadata is to incorporate a checksum. This essential piece of information tells the system if the object is valid. In other words, the system will know if the object has been changed by a user, corrupted or even deleted. In fact, object stores are typically set up as WORM  “write once read many”. This means that objects are not actually changed, rather a new version is created. This provides the ability to roll back to previous versions or prior to deletion. 

The combination of checksums and WORM functionality make object stores ideal for long term archival of data.

Firstly, by automatically keeping a copy of each object, the system can be made self-healing. If an object is corrupted or lost, the system knows and can recreate the original from the copy. Object stores are mostly designed with a scale-out architecture. If the store is spread across two geographic locations with a copy in each, then arguably the data no longer needs backing up to tape. This in itself can dramatically reduce operational costs.

Secondly, each object carries its own integrity, meaning that objects can be migrated from one store to another whilst retaining proof of its original content. This also means that the underlying hardware can be upgraded as new technology is developed and the objects remain intact indefinitely (with full chain of custody). Now, the data can outlive the infrastructure and the applications which created it.

Thirdly, the metadata can include information pertaining to confidentiality and retention period. Object stores can act upon these details making them ideal for enforcing legal compliance and governance policies.

So you may ask, why are object stores not taking over the world of storage?

Well in one respect, they already are. Many cloud providers have built infrastructures on home grown object storage technology. This has given them leading edge advantages over traditional solutions which is a strong reason why they have not been advertising these facts too loudly. Vast quantities of data are sitting in object stores. IDC forecast that worldwide revenue for file-based and object-based storage will reach $38 billion by 2017, a huge jump from the market's estimated $23-billion-plus revenue in 2013.

As organisations increasingly look to the benefits of cloud type infrastructure, whether public (outsourced) or private (in-house) or hybrid (combination), so object storage will become a key consideration. Traditional file systems will become restrictive and impact business, but it’s a matter of scale. The cloud service providers are leading the charge, but many others may well follow. 

Object storage does require change in terms of technology and significantly in terms of processes. These may be reasons for slower adoption. Another concern might be that object stores have not yet become standards based meaning there is potential for vendor lock-in. Some solutions are more open than others.

Is object storage right for you?

This will of course depend on your situation. If any of the following apply to you, then object storage could be a consideration:

       Massive growth in unstructured data which is straining traditional storage systems.

       Long term retention or specified retention term for data especially where chain of custody is a requirement (data compliance and governance).

       Archive economics – when the savings associated with archiving data way from primary storage and out of the tape backup cycle can outweigh the costs of implementing an active archive with object storage, creating a business case for change.

       Big Data – when silos of data, by application or physical storage, are impeding the ability to find and retrieve information for analysis or decision support.

       Cloud services. When you need to provide a multi-tenanted data service to your customers – whether internal or external to your organisation.

Object storage will not replace traditional SAN and NAS solutions, these have some advantages of their own for many applications. However, as unstructured data continues to grow, object storage will become a complementary and commonplace addition to storage infrastructures everywhere.

Unclear about SAN and NAS - check out

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Fancy a career in IT Sales?

We all know loosely what  Information Technology is, because it touches all of us on a daily basis. It is a term which has been around since 1958 when it appeared in the Harvard Business Review and has since been more formally defined by  the Information Technology Association of America as  "the study, design, development, application, implementation, support or management of computer-based information systems". The fact that the term was coined in the Harvard Business Review gives us a clue as to its significance. It is not so much what it is as what it does that is of importance. 

Businesses have come to rely on Information Technology to improve  productivity (for example for automating production processes in manufacturers, for speeding up money transfers in banks and improving collaboration between workers in all types of businesses).  More recently, new businesses have evolved which could not exist without information technology (for example Amazon which started as an online only book store, Google which started as a search engine and Facebook which is at the center of the social media revolution).  The benefits that IT brings to the commercial world equally apply to the public sector and indeed to individuals. Now IT touches all of us during our working day as well as our personal time and as applications become  more mobile, more and more of our waking day is affected. 

The upshot of all of this is that selling IT is big business and if entered into as a career, is something that could last a lifetime - if you have the capacity and motivation to keep up with the constant change. IT represents a significant amount of spend (and therefore sales opportunity). Analyst firm Gartner reckons global spend on IT in 2013 will reach 3.8 trillion US Dollars (a growth of 4% on 2012 despite severely poor economic conditions). This figure is pretty meaningless on its own so let's compare with the International Monetary Fund's estimation for global GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is circa 75 trillion US Dollars for 2013. This implies that about 5% of the world's available spend goes into IT. This is quite consistent with the levels of spend that organisations spend on IT as a percentage of their revenue. Of course, this can vary quite widely depending on the size of the organisation and the industry within which it operates. It should be noted that this spend is not just based on IT products purchased. It includes costs for services, support and maintenance contracts and some IT staff costs too. 

As any sales coach will tell you, one of the keys to winning a sale is understanding how purchasing from you will support the buyer by adding value either to his business or to himself personally. In other words - why customers buy IT.  In IT sales, gaining an understanding of how technology relates to business will help you become more successful. You also need to know who to speak to within your customer's organisation to win the deal.

You may be interested to know that many successful IT sales people are not technical by nature. Let me emphasise this point.
You don't need to be technical to be successful in selling technology.
I can hear many of you breathing a sigh of relief. Here is the catch though, you do need to  build trust and be able to influence buyers who are technical experts. IT conversations can become complex quickly so a grounding in what you need to know about technology can be invaluable.
A career in IT Sales can be highly rewarding in many ways - not least financially. There are many sales techniques that will help you on your way, but unless you can start talking the language of your customers, you may find yourself disadvantaged. So my advice is to spend a little time each week devoted to learning what IT is being used for and how it can help your customers achieve their goals.

To get started - check out


Tuesday 23 July 2013

What is a server?

Servers are computers which typically support multiple users. As with all computers, they contain processors, memory, networking and data storage capabilities. Servers come in various shapes and sizes. This bit you probably already knew, however there are three major categories of server and you may have wondered what the difference is between say a "mainframe" and a "unix server". And how are these different from standard servers. Read on to find out more.

1 Mainframe (proprietary)
Often dedicated for specific, enterprise wide tasks, mainframes are the grand-daddy of servers. Based on a monolithic architecture, mainframes consist of hardware and software which is often provided by a single vendor - or perhaps by two vendors who are almost entirely reliant on each other. The lock-in between hardware and software is the very reason why mainframes still exist today and less costly alternatives have not ousted them. The sheer cost of developing alternatives and the costs for customers to change away from systems which are tightly embedded in their business processes - means they are here for some time yet. Mainframes today represent a very small part of the total server market. They are categorised as "proprietary" because of the strong tie in between software and hardware.

2 Unix (open systems)
In order to break the stranglehold of mainframes and to lower the cost of computing - Unix based systems were born back in the 1970s. Unix refers to the open standard operating system (software) that runs on these computers. Originally developed by AT&T then enhanced by many University under-graduates, the system broke the link between hardware and software, increasing competitiveness and reducing costs. However, as Unix evolved, new companies were set up to commercialise the new systems and provide business solutions based on combinations of hardware and software. This process led to proprietary versions of Unix evolving. Today, Unix systems represent well under half of the server market in terms of revenue but are seen as costly compared to the third category of server which evolved from the first PCs in the 1980s. Many organisations continue to migrate away from Unix but interestingly, there is a trend to incorporate some Unix like technologies into industry standard servers (for example - server virtualisation is derived from "partitioning" technology). 

3 Industry Standard (open systems)
The first PC was produced by IBM in 1981. Consisting of an Intel processor and chipset and storage controlled by a disk operating system called MS DOS (how original). The MS stood for Microsoft - Bill Gates' most significant software release ever. PC stands for Personal Computer - the exact opposite of a mainframe in that for the first time, users could have their own personal computing environment on their desk. IBM made the decision to open up the fundamental design of the PC so other manufacturers would help establish it as the industry standard.

As PC's evolved, it quickly became apparent that connecting them together could be useful. Data could now be shared. The natural progression of this was to have perhaps one PC with a big hard drive - to hold data for others to share. And so the first industry standard server was born. Incidentally, there are some versions of Unix which can run on industry standard servers which confuses things slightly, and there is a fully open operating system called Linux too.

Visit to find out more.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Why organisations spend on IT

Unless investments in IT are providing business value, they will not be justified. Understanding this is vital for salespeople - unless wasting time chasing unqualified opportunities is the goal. 

Why do organisations spend money on IT?




Spend on IT will link to one or more of the four “Business Imperatives”. Initiatives which support one or more of these provide increased business VALUE to the organisation. VALUE is defined as activity or investment which directly supports the goals of the organisation.

Strategic Value is gained from two Business Imperatives - to increase revenue and to reduce costs.

Reduce Costs

The costs associated with IT include not only the capital purchase of new equipment, but also the ongoing costs through its lifetime. The operational costs can be up to three or four times the purchase cost. Total Cost of Ownership, or TCO, is a term often used to describe this. TCO is becoming a little dated as a term because IT ownership is in fact optional. Enabled primarily by virtualisation technologies, software and hardware are becoming decoupled and increased mobility means organisations do not need to own infrastructure - they can simply pay for "services" to be provided - for some or all of their needs. Total Cost of Operations may be a more fitting meaning for TCO.

Increase Revenue

Commercial organisations are typically goaled to drive profitability. Simply put, Revenue minus Costs equals Profit. The way to achieve this is to provide the best possible levels of service for customers so they buy more products and or services. For public sector organisations, the focus on service provision is in fact the primary goal. Better service provision should drive improved funding which is used to cover the organisation's costs. The end result is similar to commercial organisations - but the focus is on service provision rather than profit.

Organisations also need to drive Operational Value. The two Business Imperatives here are to increase agility and to reduce risk.

Increase Agility

Organisations need to respond ever more quickly to market demands. New applications must be rolled out in shorter time frames, test and development cycles must be slashed and the costs associated with new projects need to be curbed. In summary, as IT evolves, it must become more agile - in line with the business itself.

Reduce Risk

As businesses grow, become more globalised with 24/7 operations and become more regulated - whether by internal or industry governance - so the pressures to avoid business risk mounts. With IT so central to business operations, so Risk Management has become a critical operational imperative. Legal compliance, information management, business continuity, backup and disaster recovery are all initiatives which fall under this category and provide necessary value to the organisation.

Unless an IT purchase supports at least one of the Business Imperatives and VALUE is increased, it will not be justified. Conversely, if you can demonstrate how an investment in a particular technology supports one or more business imperatives, this will strengthen your case to get budget approved.


Monday 20 May 2013

What is selling anyway?

Have you ever been in a conversation and at the end thought "I don't think she listened to a word I said"? Or conversely "I don't have a clue what he was talking about?" Especially over the phone, it can be difficult sometimes to get a point across. It can be even harder to gain real commitment from someone you may not have spoken to before or at least have not met in person. And yet, that is the purpose of you calling your customers/ prospects.

It may seem like quite an achievement just to get through to your customer. To have an engaged conversation can be harder again and your well written call plan will certainly help with this. But all this can be for nothing if you and the conversation are not remembered, if you have not had a personal influence on your customer.

Why is personal influence so important? Well it boils down to the fundamental reality of what selling is.

I often tell delegates in my training sessions that they cannot sell anything. I am not trying to be disparaging when I say this, it is not a personal slight on their abilities. It is a rather controversial statement to be making in a room of sales people and does tend to get the conversation started. Some will be intrigued, some will disagree and someone will say - "What do you mean by saying that?

"Well", I continue, "who in here reckons they can sell?" One way or another, someone volunteers (or is volunteered). "OK", I challenge, "sell me something". This tends to flummox the volunteer. If she is smart, she will say "well what do you want?" And that is my point. You can only sell something to someone who wants it, who sees some value to be had and is willing to part with money in exchange for it. You cannot sell unless someone wishes to buy. Of course, there are some unscrupulous  people out there who find ways to cajole, manipulate or con their "customers" out of money by convincing them that they want something - but this is not legitimate selling.

There is no sale without a willingness to buy. So selling is actually the process of communicating with people, ideally in a targeted way, with the purpose of firstly discovering a willingness to buy a product or service that you can fulfil. Then, it is personally influencing that person (or perhaps multiple decision makers) to buy from you.
This final process is personal because the buyer is either buying for himself or putting his personal reputation on the line if buying on behalf of his company. Your ability to influence the purchasing decision will be governed by a number of factors such as price, product fit for purpose, your compliance with any purchasing rules etc. But the old adage, people buy from people, is as true today as it ever was because ultimately, a person needs to raise that purchase order and we are all driven to do what we perceive to be right by ourselves, our employer and by our peers (probably in that order).

In order for you to build influence with your customers, you need to spend time with them. This is partly so you can build rapport and trust, and partly so you can get to understand their personal drivers. Doing "right by ourselves, employer and peers" is subjectively and personally defined. So unless you get to know the person, your ability to influence will be dramatically reduced. Win over the person, and your ability to win the sale will skyrocket.

Monday 7 January 2013

IT's Cloudy where the Sun don't shine

Pure genius. I did not understand it at the time but what foresight. The phrase - "the network is the computer". It was coined in 1984 by a company which was the yin to Microsoft's PC yan - Sun Microsystems.

Those of us who have been in IT for while know that things go in circles. Like the seasons and the weather. But now - there is a fundamental shift taking place. Should IT be centralised like in the mainframe era - or should it be de-centralised with all the power given to users? It's an outdated question. Both are now demanded. As networks, computing and storage have become independent through virtualisation - so IT has become service centric. As a bi-product, it has become impossible to draw as well - so now we just refer to "the Cloud" (because this is how engineers got around the drawing limitation).

Who could have predicted the end of Sun? mmm yes, an Oracle. What about the end of the PC? It's been hailed before but now there are signs that the PC is in its Autumn years. The range of client devices being demanded in the corporate world is being driven by the liberating effects of Cloud computing and virtualisation. Why can't I bring my own device to work? And why can't it be an Apple 'cos its cool? IT - just make my apps work (even the Microsoft ones).

For an explanation of Cloud and other things - visit