The onslaught of the mobile revolution on storage

Today there are nearly a billion smartphone users worldwide. While the device numbers themselves may be staggering, so too is their onslaught on data management and storage. In many ways this has resulted in a major shift in how enterprises do...


Today there are nearly a billion smartphone users worldwide. While the device numbers themselves may be staggering, so too is their onslaught on data management and storage. In many ways this has resulted in a major shift in how enterprises do business.

The biggest impact is perhaps felt by telecom providers worldwide - and therefore by their own IT organisations. Not only do they have to bolster their infrastructure to handle large amounts of "neo" web traffic that is exchanged by these smartphones (as an example, users like to shared photos clicked on their smartphones on social media sites) but they also have to constantly upgrade their systems to track the increased number of devices on their networks.

When vendors like Apple or Samsung release new highly sought-after smartphones, telecom providers often face a tsunami effect. As an example Apple recently announced it had sold 5 million of its iPhone5 units on launch day. Telecom providers like AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint faced the brunt of the storm of device activations that day. So how does this translate to an impact on storage and data management you ask?

A few years ago, I was given a tour of a telecom data center (It was the size of four large Wal-marts combined). It was right after the launch of the first iPhone. The IT team that gave me the tour also showed me how the preparations they had made to factor in the surge in device activations - they had to double the capacity of their provisioning database, which meant adding an additional storage array just for one database instance.

They had to provision additional capacity on their data protection environment - which meant adding disk-based storage for database backups and tape libraries for de-staging these backups to tape.

They had to increase the capacity of network monitoring systems to handle additional device workload and also update their billing systems to track a different breed of devices. Back then this telecom provider hosted one of the largest billing databases in the industry.

And in spite all these efforts they fell short - their systems were stressed and it took IT many additional man hours to bring things back to normal. One of the reasons they cited for a shift on the telecom side was that prior to the launch of the iPhone, most telecoms were used to the Blackberry way of doing things.

Any and all Blackberry provisioning activities are handled by the RIM network and for the most part telecoms simply act as intermediaries. Similarly most Blackberry users only user their devices to check email and calendars. There is very little consumer centric activity on their Blackberry - and whatever there is goes via the Blacberry network.

The iOS platform (and subsequently other smartphone platforms like Android) changed all that. Telecoms are now one of the largest stalwarts of the data and storage management industry. Not only do they need to track and manage the activities of "smart devices" on their network but in an increasingly insecure world they also need to protect the interests of their subscribers.

Telecoms are ushering in Big Data in their industry. They have to build on their expertise in event correlation (like networking device monitoring), and add in analytics of new and complete data sets generated by smart devices. They are therefore constantly at the top of Big Data use cases such as churn prevention, fraud detection and prevention, security violations, billing trends and accuracy, device usage patterns (Sir - you may be using your data to watch movies on Netflix) and infrastructure optimisation in anticipation of events worldwide (The 2012 London Olympics was watched by many users on their smart devices).

However by and large telecoms seem to have factored in the ongoing surge in mobile devices they have to manage. They have learned from their past mistakes. So when Apple released their iPhone5 - even though they sold more devices than all previous combined, neither telecom's networks blinked.

The same cannot be said about IT in businesses. Businesses are still struggling with how to deal with a surge in BYOD. It is safe to say that the iOS and Android platforms have ushered in the BYOD revolution in IT. They still have yet to decide if it is Bring-your-own-device-and-let-IT-manage-it (If there were a term like BYODALITMI) or simply Bring-and-manage-your-own-device (BAMYD). They are yet to decide how they tackle mobile device management in the long term.

In the medium term, this has had a significant impact on storage in IT. Users have been increasingly using corporate folders and home directories to store personal data like photos and web content downloaded from their smart devices. Many users also use such resources to back their devices up - for example storing devices backup files on corporate home directories.

Similarly users attach their social media experience to corporate IT assets meaning that any interactions they have on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Linkedin. All of this translates to a data deluge and an increased overhead on IT as a result. How does IT handle a storage management challenge? What are businesses to do here?

I believe businesses ought to acknowledge that mobile is a way for them to interact with their users and social as a way of doing business. Do a one-time correction to their data growth because of ongoing initiatives such as BYOD, BAYMD or whatever else may happen.

Secondly businesses ought to acknowledge that offering a private-cloud-like sync and share service where in users use corporate resources to backup their devices may be a better way to ensure that corporate data stays with IT - this could be enforced as a policy: If you want to use your own device with IT systems, we will put it under IT managed MDM (mobile device management) policies.

IT may have to factor in ongoing corrections to their data management and storage framework such as seggregating the resources mobile devices are allowed to access. These could be done using scale-out object and file-based solutions that can be accessed using interfaces like WebDAV. They may also have to deploy third party apps that disallow corporate data from being copied using their mobile devices. Vendors like Citrix and VMware are creating frameworks that make this easier.

Bottomline is that in this new world the mobile revolution is putting a different kind of challenges on storage in IT. Like the telecoms, IT organisations can learn from the past (when the PC revolution hit them) on how to be better prepared the second time around.

Posted by Ashish Nadkarni

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