“Unstructured data, although wild and untamed, possesses huge potential”
There are few businesses today that don’t see their future as increasingly being defined by data. Capturing information on customers, processes and their own business operations has been a priority for many businesses, but making sense of these increasingly massive datasets remains a major challenge, even if that data is structured, organised and ready to be analysed, writes Pete Hulme, Practice Lead, Data Centre Solutions, Dimension Data
Adding to their data difficulties, 80 percent of data being generated today is unstructured. This figure is expected to rise to 93 percent by 2022, meaning companies not only have to find a way to organise it, but also extract any valuable business insights concealed beneath the surface.
What does this mean for businesses seeking to store, manage and extract value from the data they have today, and will have tomorrow?
The difference between structured and unstructured data
Structured data is intelligence that’s been organised into an easily navigable database, typically in the form of a spreadsheet – which allows for more efficient processing and analysis.
Anything that doesn’t fall into these cohesive and structured data repositories is known as unstructured data, a vast floating mass of primarily text-based information with no defined internal structure.
And invariably, responsibility for the upkeep of this data rests on the shoulders of the IT department.
With unstructured data, IT teams are expected to establish an efficient way to collect, store, and protect valuable information that’s in a constant production line, thanks in large part to an increasing number of end-users and the ever-increasing sophistication of machine learning tools.
The expectations don’t end there. Unstructured data, although wild and untamed, possesses huge potential. And so, along with its general upkeep, IT teams are expected to pull all this unstructured data into a central hub, which anyone in the world can access, and turn it into a strategic asset. Sounds easy, right? And the very nature of a connected world churning out hordes of data means traditional technologies can no longer keep pace and support this information eruption, leaving many IT teams unable to deliver on the promise of unstructured data.
Time to rethink storage and management
Typically, data centres are all contained within one location. Data, on the other hand, is being generated from every conceivable area of the globe. You can see the problem. And it’s not just the increasing volume of data that’s causing IT teams headaches, it’s the velocity and variety that’s impacting their ability to cope.
Market shifts and changes to regulation on data sovereignty and storage have left businesses demanding a content repository that’s flexible, scalable, affordable, secure, and accessible from anywhere in the world. Traditional data centres simply cannot satisfy that criteria any longer. That’s where object (and eventually managed) storage comes in.
Object storage provides an infrastructure for a company’s data that essentially has no limits. Many companies are familiar with a file storage approach, where data is neatly stored in folders and nested under some more folders to create a logical pathway. That’s all well and good up to a certain point. But as a company grows, a file storage approach struggles to keep pace – performance will eventually flex and buckle under the increased capacity demands.
Object storage knocks down these boundaries – re-bundling the data and making it easily searchable from metadata tags and unique identifiers. And because object storage retains data in a flat address space – rather than hierarchy (file storage) or within sectors and tracks (block storage) – it allows anyone in the world to locate and access the data with ease.
This is where the managed aspect comes into play. Using an object-based storage system as the bedrock, managed storage enables developers and IT teams to handle disparate file systems under a single global namespace, and take control of the hybrid model, automating data management on-site and in the public cloud.
Waiting in the wings: Managed storage’s time has come
From a maturity perspective, managed storage is still in its infancy. True, it’s been around in one form or another for a long time now, but it’s been hanging out waiting for a problem to solve. And now, because almost every business is undergoing a digital transformation journey, that business challenge is here. Data maturity is increasing as companies get their databases under control, but they have no idea what to do with it. Added to this, information is now spread over such a vast area, that it’s impossible to mine it and extrapolate any value from it quickly.
Truly understanding what this data means allows companies to turn isolated objects into business intelligence and strategic assets, helping organisations to generate new revenue streams and go-to-market with new business ideas much quicker.
Because managed storage adopts a pay-as-you-go model, it’s relatively risk free. Many companies crave that hyperscale feel, but are shackled by so many compliance and regulatory barriers that slows cloud migration. What they can do, however, is allow their infrastructure to be managed on-premise at cost-per-gigabyte (or terabyte), extract value from the resulting data, and use that insight to create a compelling argument for business owners to move more data to the cloud in order to achieve more scalable results.
This is where managed storage really comes into its own. Need to store sensitive business data on-premise rather than the cloud? For many companies, managed storage acts as a stepping stone that allows them to build trust, understand the worth of their data, and communicate that value to the board.
Making the case to the board: Internal IT is free, right?
Let’s be honest. The operations part of the business just isn’t motivated to adopt a managed storage solution, stubborn in the belief that internal IT should be free. How many of you actually possess an internal mechanism for cross-charging your IT costs? It’s a rare commodity.
Fortunately, because more businesses are actually having conversations with their IT department, they’re finally waking up to the realisation that the traditional way of managing the relationship between IT and the wider business needs a rethink.
But no matter how far technology has evolved or how much more experience consultants have managing projects, not every single point will deliver game-changing business value. Added to that, a lot of data only retains its worth for a finite period of time, rendering it a literal waste of space once that timeframe expires.
The obvious solution would be to get rid of this unstructured data for good, but many organisations are required by law to retain large volumes of data for a certain period of time – or in some cases, indefinitely. And if certain data sets do indeed possess strategic value for a specific period of time, companies need to be able to access it instantly before its benefits expires, no matter where in the world it is stored.
Not only are companies demanding flexibility in terms of scale, speed and location, they also want to adopt commercial models that allow freedom. They don’t want to invest in a data storage solution that will tie them down to yearly contracts, forcing them to hold onto data they no longer need.
They could be a post-production media house that needs to hold onto a large number of video files, or a technology business that needs to back up Office 365 or SAP. Managed storage essentially adopts a pay-as-you-go model – and whether that’s cost-per-gigabyte or cost-per-terabyte, companies will inject the infrastructure into the managed data centre, spin it up, configure it, and then leave it for a managed storage provider to manage. What’s more, the client would never own the infrastructure – it’s the service provider’s responsibility to manage that platform. The buck stops with them.
And because this is a software-defined solution and not defined by hardware manufacturers, it means businesses can easily move their unstructured data from on-premise to cloud platforms such as AWS or Azure.
Managed storage in practice
Take higher education institutions, for example. Colleges and universities produce detailed profiles for all their students, along with digital workspaces with material and resource archives that can stretch back decades. With every intake of new students, a batch of graduates leave, and all that data absolutely has to be stored, maintained, and protected. We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of files, we’re talking about literally millions of data points.
What’s more, with the increased business intelligence potential unearthed by object storage, educational institutions can now use this unstructured data to inform their marketing and research, as well as improving the student experience, a demographic that are increasingly demanding a digital-first and on-demand experience.
Likewise, in the legal sector, businesses are typically very pyramid shaped, with huge swathes of junior professionals carrying out all the manual research and cross-referencing work that’s synonymous with the profession. Today, paper documents that would previously have had to be pored over by teams of people can be scanned and digitised, making data machine readable and completely searchable in the fraction of a second.
This demonstrates how managed storage not only revolutionises the way a business extracts value from data, it also highlights how it can completely transform a company, from both a structural and processing perspective.