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Data storage in the remote working world – what does it look like?

Johannesburg, 09 Apr 2021
Read time 5min 10sec
Chris Larkins, Business Unit Manager: Dell Enterprise, Tarsus.
Chris Larkins, Business Unit Manager: Dell Enterprise, Tarsus.

Have you considered how an average employee handles data? They log into company systems to access applications and data. They download their e-mail and save attachments from that e-mail. They send documents to coworkers and customers, take digital notes and snap photos of handwritten ones. They write and store files on their desktop, post comments on message boards, and create quick voice notes for colleagues.

The average employee handles a lot of data that concerns the business. And businesses create webs of technology to manage, control and safeguard that information. But all of that diligence hit the skids when the pandemic pushed people to start working remotely.

"Companies had to move quickly when everything changed, and they could, fortunately, rely on their digital systems to make things happen," says Chris Larkins, Tarsus' Business Unit Manager for Dell Enterprise Solutions. "But it wasn't a smooth, structured transition and now there are new issues to take care of. Practically all of them relate to data."

Data in the traditional vs WFH eras

It's hard to conjure examples of remote working that don't involve data. Security policies and practices are primarily about securing data. Networks and connectivity establish access data. Applications put data in front of people.

Remote working threw spanners into many of those areas. It's tougher to distribute and maintain policies across the many different machines employees now use. Soft technical barriers, such as using a VPN, made it tougher to access corporate storage. Many employees don't know how to use a VPN, yet don't have IT support down the hall to help them. It's much harder to create device backups. And, critically, the data isn't going back to where it's meant to. Instead, it's increasingly stored on home-bound machines.

Larkins summarises it to one phenomenon, namely that "data is spreading out. The volume and growth of data was the big challenge, and company systems tried to get that under control. They were winning, but now that data doesn't necessarily even sit in the systems meant to manage everything. The single biggest impact of work from home is that data now lives in many different places."

That's a challenge for regular data, he adds, but is even a bigger problem for unstructured data.

The data dark horse

Organisations weren't caught with their pants down. Many are invested in systems to help carry their data behind the company's parameters, which is evident from how rapidly they could shift to remote working. According to the World Economic Forum, at least 48% of the global workforce shifted to remote working.

But it wasn't seamless. In particular, mid-sized organisations feel the squeeze of balancing reliable and safe IT with remote working demands.

Companies now have to deal with unstructured data – which is the fastest-growing data category. This data follows the current of everyday work. Voice notes, memos attached to an e-mail, documents shared on instant messengers and other examples represent a vast pool of information that was already difficult to manage in normal operating circumstances.

"One way companies solved unstructured data was to feed it all into a pool and then manage that pool. But those strategies often don't go beyond that, such as classifying the data, offering granular control or creating access to it. You just took care of unstructured data by using the systems you had, and then hoped nothing upset the environment."

But remote working did cause an upset, and now unstructured data runs wild. The situation highlights why data management and storage is an even bigger conundrum for companies, despite all the work they'd put into it.

A new home for data

Fortunately, the answers around unstructured data questions relate to other data concerns, which we can summarise in three priorities: store and protect, create access, and generate use cases.

Storing and protecting data, including governance, lays the foundation for the other two priorities. Companies should use storage appliances that scale out easily and offer visibility across different storage platforms, including cloud storage. Such appliances make it easier to manage data and assign the appropriate type of storage. Analytics services that ship with the top appliances can manage data classification.

Such appliances and services then help create access. Security teams can develop and grant access to remote workers, and application platforms help maintain those personas. The right storage appliances should connect easily with different applications, reinforcing security while exposing data to the right people. Modern storage works across different applications, including internal business apps, cloud services such as Office365, and less known potentially 'shadow IT' apps that users like to flock to.

These steps then lead to new use cases for data. By giving users access and collecting behavioural insights on data engagement, data use cases will emerge. You could say: 'Build it and they will come.'

Realising these three priorities is an incredible opportunity for anyone wondering if remote working has dug a deep data hole.

"The market made a lot of progress around handling big data, but the pandemic revealed where things can be improved," says Larkins. "That's the advantage: the solutions developed to manage data in modern and collaborative ways can now be put to work. Customers don't need to reinvent the wheel. They can solve those data problems created by remote working. In doing so, they can get much more value and depth from all their data, including all the unstructured information."

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