Tiered storage means matching the different kinds of data in your enterprise with the right storage solution. Here’s how to analyze the price, performance, capacity and function of each storage system to create a cost-effective and efficient multilevel solution.

Last year, Harry was a new employee at LearnWell Community College. Although the school didn’t hire him as a professor, he knew he’d be doing plenty of mentoring: As the new director of information technology, he’d have to work with his team to completely remap the network’s storage system—and re-educate all users as a result.

Harry faced a cobbled-together mess of pricey components. The school stored electronic versions of its records, some as old as the 98-year-old institution itself, in onsite disk systems, even though they were rarely touched. Moreover, the system lacked a disaster recovery plan should it face a disaster or a meltdown.

As his first task, Harry set out to revamp the school’s data recovery and backup plan. He had to take the college’s storage system from barely functional to exemplary, and teach the staff how to reach archived materials. To do that, he had to implement a classification system to sort data based on use, then house it in a well-designed tiered storage system. This new system needed to be far more cost-effective than the current one, even after redundancy was added.

The Virtues of Tiering

For those not familiar with the term, “tiered storage” might sound like a giant wedding cake made of hard drives—and that’s not a bad analogy. The system creates multiple layers of storage, just like the levels of a giant cake:

  • The top tier holds mission-critical data used on a daily basis in more convenient (but also pricier) storage media.
  • The lower tiers house less critical data in less expensive storage media, such as backup tape systems.

Businesses typically switch to tiered storage as a cost-cutting move—especially in the rapidly evolving climate of Big Data. Organizations are finding their data libraries growing so quickly that keeping them on local disks simply isn’t affordable. They need an archiving system that separates the essential from the rest and stores each type of data appropriately.

Regulations controlling data storage are tightening and can include directives on what kind of data your organization needs to retain. Here’s how a well-conceived three-tier storage system addresses these and other key issues:

  • Tier 1: Data that’s essential to your firm’s daily operations and/or highly confidential.
  • Tier 2: Data you need to access from time to time.
  • Tier 3: Information you rarely, if ever, access. It’s likely stored until your data lifecycle plan calls for its secure destruction. Backup tape systems that offer a high level of security and cost-effectiveness are an excellent tier 3 media option.

The Long Arm of the Law

Regulatory guidelines should inform your tiered storage strategy. But it seems like they change every day. The following federal regulations are either being revamped or are causing companies to adjust their strategies:

1. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). Compliance with the outside audit requirements of Section 404 can cost an organization millions of dollars. It calls for storing potentially voluminous supporting documentation for lengthy time periods.

2. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. On the heels of the recession, Congress instituted regulatory reforms for the financial services industry.

3. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Version 5010 aims to standardize information presentation across all records formats.

4. The Red Flags Rule. The Federal Trade Commission’s newly implemented Red Flags Rule requires targeted companies to create a written identity theft prevention program that includes reasonable policies and procedures for “detecting, preventing and mitigating identity theft.”

5. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 imposes several extensive new records requirements on food manufacturers and distributors.

To align your tiered storage scheme with regulatory obligations, take these steps:

  • Understand the regulations that govern your company and industry. Many have clear data retention and destruction guidelines. Use those to help determine your storage needs.
  • Develop a legally credible data retention schedule in tandem with policies addressing information privacy, security and disposal. This is crucial for compliance.
  • Implement a complete compliance program across your entire business. Include as much training as is needed; codify rules in writing and distribute them.

Planning for Tiers

Give yourself enough time to create your tiered storage system. In most cases, it can take months to conceive, build, test and refine. And, of course, you should monitor it constantly to identify areas that need improvement.

Expect some departmental competition as you set up the tiers. After all, your marketing team is sure its documents are the most crucial, while sales also believe its documents are purely tier 1. That said, both may want to skip tiering altogether and keep all their documents in local or cloud storage.

Rather than set up a system where employees sort and back up tiered data by hand, you should create an automated system in order to avoid all the hassle. Implement a hierarchical storage management system to automatically move stored data between tiers. Another method to drive the use of tiered storage is to implement a chargeback system, through which departments can monitor the real costs of their data storage. Once they’re aware of the costs, employees should be eager to use tiered storage and save money.

Follow these three steps to implement your system:

Step 1: Choose the number of tiers. Each type of tier is a potential money-saver for your organization, since you have the opportunity to use the least expensive type of storage. The more tiers you create, the finer the level of control you have. However, with more tiers comes greater complexity, so plan judiciously.

The number of tiers your company should maintain depends on the number of different data types in your enterprise. Two other influences include your recovery point objectives (RPO)—the amount of data loss you’re willing to accept during a recovery—and recovery time objectives (RTO)—the amount of time that recovery takes. Tiered systems commonly include from two to ten tiers.

Step 2: Determine each tier’s storage needs. Does the material need to reside onsite, or could it be stored at a remote location? Do you use the material frequently or rarely? What kind of security do you need? Review the specifications of your storage options to assess which solution best fits each tier. Analyze your information and determine the capacity and level of scalability for each data type. Remember to plan not just for what’s needed today, but also for what you anticipate requiring over the next three to five years.

You may find assigning storage systems to each tier challenging. After all, you want to put each data set into the lowest-cost storage possible while meeting access speed requirements. However, you also need to consider system scalability, since you don’t want to be constrained by the limited size and performance inherent in certain designs.

Step 3: Talk with your colleagues. If you haven’t included the various departments of your organization until now, it’s time. Talk to department heads about how the new system could change some data locations—and get each person to sign off.

Once you’ve determined the tiers, it’s time to plan their implementation. Here are some questions to ask as you create your template for the system:

  • What are our organization’s goals for the tiered system?
  • What kind of budget will we need? (Although your goal is to save money over time, a tiered system still calls for an initial investment.)
  • What kind of personnel resources will we need to create it? Do we have the necessary staff, or do we need to pull in experts?
  • How will the systems interconnect? (Create a map.)
  • How long will it take to get everything in place? Will crucial data be offline for any of that time?

Put Your Plan to the Test

Once you finally have a tiered storage solution in place, you’ve reached a milestone—but you’re hardly done. Be sure to test your system and continue monitoring it throughout its lifespan. Ask yourself:

1. Does it organize your organization?

  • Does the system design meet your organization’s needs?
  • Does its tier count address how you use data?
  • Does each tier below tier 1 represent a significant cost savings over the previous tier?
  • Does every tier get used? (Perhaps you’ve overplanned, and one or more tiers are sitting empty.)

2. Will it ultimately save you money?

  • Did the costs fall in line with your expectations?
  • Could you have worked more with outside vendors or have chosen different storage media?
  • Are you starting to save money from day one with the new storage options?

3. Is it efficient enough?

  • How are your various departments working with their new storage options? Are any of their day-to-day events limited by the tiers? (If so, consider adjusting the plan.)
  • Does each department understand the system, or is additional training needed?

Are you satisfied with the answers to these questions? If so, chances are your old, patchwork storage scheme has graduated summa cum laude to a tiered storage system that matches storage medium to data type while saving money and providing better access to frequently used material.

Iron Mountain Suggests: Go Offsite for Savings

For companies used to storing all their information in onsite disk storage, tiering can offer dramatic savings. But what those organizations might not realize is that storing less-used data offsite with a backup tape system also delivers extra perks, such as:

  • The ability to recover from catastrophic events that affect all the servers in an office, such as hurricane or tornado damage
  • Fast access to stored information to answer regulatory or legal requests
  • An archival system that lets you know exactly where your files are located

Do you have questions about data backup and recovery? Read additional Knowledge Center stories on this subject, or contact Iron Mountain’s Data Backup and Recovery team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services specialist who can address your specific challenges.