Network storage isn't an issue insurance executives spend much time thinking about. But it should be. For starters, regulatory demands, such as those spelled out in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), are putting the onus on executives to better manage their storage systems. To audit and archive data, organizations need to hold on to more data for longer periods of time, while keeping it all readily accessible to analytical applications.Moreover, as the industry moves away from paper documents, insurers are in danger of drowning in a sea of digital data. The buildup of data is making it more cumbersome to quickly retrieve data that's relevant to key business processes. And that, experts say, is why carriers need to properly manage network storage.

Automation within the industry certainly is improving the productivity and efficiency of workers, but it's causing data to pile up across enterprises. The challenge, industry experts say, is managing this information across a range of disparate systems and devices that have sprung up across enterprises in recent years.

For example, Shelter Insurance Cos., which has experienced explosive growth in recent years, had the challenge of managing a mainframe environment along with up to 180 Windows servers. "The number of servers grew so fast that we got to the point where we were doing full backups on the weekend, and it would literally take all weekend," says Joe Howell, systems programmer for the LAN administration team at Shelter Insurance, Columbia, Mo.

Image problems

One of the biggest drivers of storage growth has been the industry's increasing use of imaging and workflow systems, systems that have increased productivity, but are causing storage systems to burst at the seams.

"We've seen a surge in unstructured or nontraditional data, such as graphical or image files, and that's taxing data storage at all levels of the insurance enterprise," says Tim Bremer, assistant vice president of technology and support for Winterthur North America, Sun Prairie, Wis. "More than half our processes are now done through an image-based system."

Winterthur once maintained an entire building on its campus just to house its paper files, Bremer says. While such automation saves a lot of physical space, it presents new storage management challenges. The carrier now has about 30 terabytes of data, which is growing at a rate of 10% to 20% a year, he reports.

At Shelter Insurance, image files also are creating a 10% annual increase in stored information, according to Howell. "A lot of that's driven by our imaging system, as well as business growth," he says.

SOX requires organizations to document and validate reported information to ensure that financial transactions are correct, complete and properly recorded, an objective that's often referred to as corporate transparency.

Specifically, Section 802 of the Act requires publicly traded companies to maintain all audit or review statements for a period of five years (seven for audit records).

The data-retention implications of SOX and other regulations need to be addressed by insurers, industry observers say. "There's a lot of new legal and compliance requirements coming at the insurance industry," Bremer says.

"The retention of some data is going to be longer than what current retention policies may be internally. That's driving that question about archived storage."

Although compliance may only represent a small portion of total storage requirements, it arguably has the highest priority. "Compliance is a difficult problem for storage managers," says Richard Villars, vice president of storage systems research for IDC, Framingham, Mass. "There's awareness at the corporate level of the importance of the issue and added complexity."

For many carriers, the challenge is bringing a variety of platforms and systems under one management umbrella. Shelter Insurance, for example, has a mainframe, an enterprise storage subsystem and virtual tape server, a tape library, and a server farm of 180 Windows servers. The company uses IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager to help manage the company's e-commerce applications for its agent network.

Some experts advocate moving data to less-expensive systems as part of a management strategy. "Information lifecycle management is the hottest issue right now in IT for most of the major insurance companies I've been working with," says Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis for EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass.

"That encompasses a lot of different underlying pieces-the tiering of storage, the recognition that the value of information can change, and providing the lowest cost but most appropriate service level for information at the various stages of its lifecycle."

Storage systems also need to be able to move information between different types of media throughout the lifecycle. Winterthur, for one, is looking at the long-term picture for storage strategies that address both ongoing business and potential compliance issues.

"We have primary data, defined as data that we need to have fairly quick access to, and changes fairly regularly," Bremer says. "This is data such as policy information and claim files. Some of the new requirements are going to probably mandate us to store archived data in a non-erasable physical media type, such as optical."

The challenge is to enable the capabilities to be able to manage these processes across an array of disparate storage devices.

"People recognize that the best return they can get is if they could store each data type on storage that is optimized for it's unique requirements," says Villars. "The reason that we haven't been able to do that is because it's too hard to manage all those different storage systems."

Storage virtualization

Industry experts say storage tiering and information lifecycle management would not be possible without virtualization technology. Storage virtualization enables organizations to manage their various storage systems as if they were consolidated onto a single disk. Various devices on the network-regardless of media, make, age, capacity, or vendor-are presented to end-users and administrators as a common pool of storage.

"You can't do common storage management without common data replication," says IDC's Villars. "You can't do common data replication without virtualization, because that's going to be the foundation that lets you move the information-regardless of what physical device it's on-to other devices in a structured way, without having to constantly interrupt application operations or server configurations."

"Virtualization has been hotter within insurance than in other industries," says EMC's Steinhardt. "New virtualization technologies will be able to provide ongoing continuous availability of systems at full performance. The promise of virtualization is the possibility for companies to run their critical systems 24 by 7 even while technology changes under the covers."

In a recent survey of data center sites, Gartner found that 61% are already using storage virtualization products or functions in some capacity, while 30% have plans to do so. Six out of ten respondents say their virtualization technology is, or will primarily be, based within their storage arrays, and another 22% rely on host-based volume managers. Another 20% either have or will be moving to network-based appliances to achieve virtualization.

Some analysts argue that most virtualization is likely to occur under the covers, rather than through specific products. "It's hard to go out and find a company that goes out and says, 'we want to do storage virtualization,'" says IDC's Villars. "What you find is that companies want to do tiered storage. Tiered storage requires virtualization beyond an individual array level."

Winterthur's Bremer sees virtualization as a way to get burgeoning hardware costs under control. "We're starting to see some good management tools out there," he says.

"Storage virtualization is really software, so you can manage that without regard to what physical medium you store the stuff on in the background, and some of those products are now just reaching maturity. We're evaluating them all. We're figuring out who's got the best vision for the future. We want to make the best choice now, so we can grow into it."

Joe McKendrick is a business writer based in Doylestown, Pa.

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