NOBLE GROUP IS a Hong Kong trading company that provides an integrated global supply chain for commodities, ranging from coal to cocoa beans. The group has 70 offices in 35 countries. It also operates a global ship management business and supports the logistics necessary for end-to-end delivery. The group's chief information officer, David Brickler, leads a 33-member IT department, grouped into four: service desk, infrastructure, server and development, and project teams. E-mail abounds Until recently, the IT infrastructure mirrored the logical organisation of the company, and the various groups had their own servers, data storage silos and IT staff. 'We needed to take a long-term view of storage, recognise that the volume of storage will increase and users must continue to retrieve their data according to business need, but this must be achieved in a unified strategic organisation of storage,' Mr Brickler says. 'We also had to recognise that e-mail is used intensively by our staff and is a critical and very visible part of operations, yet we needed to prevent the sheer volume of e-mail from becoming a storage bottleneck.' E-mail is a basic tool of the global trading and logistics business. 'The Noble Group is growing and individual managers generate a very large volume of e-mails, comprising about 30 to 40 per cent of our entire storage load. Industry regulation is also increasing, so e-mail retrieval is more important than ever.' One obvious problem is the way end-users treat e-mail. 'Too many users use their inbox as a form of file storage for e-mails and attachments.' Down to the users 'The hardest thing is to change the way people have been doing things. Users are attending to their core business concerns so they have other things on their minds than storage,' Mr Brickler says. 'Any change to their modus operandi for users can impose extra stress on them, even if it will be more efficient in the long run. Ideally, we help users to realise themselves that there is a better way to do something.' Internal cost allocation of IT services helps decision making. 'Initially, users tend to ask for instant availability of every document, but if you attach a price tag on instant availability, users will be less bothered with a 10 to 15-second delay in retrieval.' Although the strategy is corporate, it is not possible to get all the users together to discuss storage, even for major issues, Mr Brickler says. 'We have to meet with them in small groups. It's not possible to organise a large get-together on storage policy because they have too much on their minds and they spend too much time on the road.' Centralising and standardising Mr Brickler uses information life cycle management as a tool to relate the level of importance of information to its availability in time lag and ease of access. Much of the group's information relates to the loading and sailing of ships. 'When the voyage is over and the cargo off-loaded and sold, the information on that voyage is kept for accounting purposes, but the day-to-day involvement is ended so the data involved no longer requires immediate access,' he says. Noble Group's worldwide locations store key data locally, but for the main trading applications and accountancy, the data is transmitted over the WAN via secure VPN connections to the Hong Kong headquarters to be consolidated. 'We mirror all this data in real-time between our head office data centre and an external site at Sha Tin where our secondary systems are co-located,' Mr Brickler says. He has implemented the Citrix Access Platform, which provides unified access to files from a variety of key applications, and also the ability to manage the files and collaborate online. 'Citrix provides bank-style security, using a code generator token. This access control means that nobody can hack in by logging your keystrokes when you are entering a password,' Mr Brickler says. Citrix enables users to access files securely from any location, including a remote wired or wireless internet link, and the system includes session persistence, enabling users to continue work if the connection is temporarily interrupted. As for solving the company's e-mail conundrum, Mr Brickler is standardising and consolidating e-mail storage silos, replacing separate storage with a centralised system and enforcing service level agreements (SLAs) to establish the rights and obligations of the user and service provider. 'We are reducing inbox size and archiving e-mail on EMC's Centera disk storage.' The company is using the same vendor's Email Extender, an application that indexes and manages e-mail in a much more structured way. Noble Group has found that an effective way to reduce the size of e-mail inboxes is to use a storage application called SharePoint, part of Microsoft Windows server, which can be accessed with a browser. 'Old e-mails can be found by searching for key words, dates, 'from' and 'to' fields, and also by searching the contents,' Mr Brickler says. Nevertheless, integrating e-mail and attachments with other kinds of data is a time-intensive process, he says. 'We have a team of people deploying SharePoint by helping the users determine the data availability they need, the appropriate file structures and the assignment of access to users.' Although the company is aiming to benefit from a standardised approach, IT staff will create separate SLAs for each operating department, and many special requirements will be conceded. 'We're trying to keep inboxes down to a couple of gigabytes, but some users need 5GB to 6GB,' Mr Brickler says. Retention of e-mail also varies, with seven years being the normal period, but some departments insist they need to retain every e-mail since the company's inception. Voice files from telephone recording or voicemail are one form of data that have held out against easy indexing or retrieval, Mr Brickler says. He recalled a voice recognition application used at his previous company which was designed to automatically tag voice files with keywords. 'Users would first enter a superset of useful keywords and then the system would look for them in order to provide search indexing. This system may be seen as overkill at present, but business governance might necessitate its use in future,' Mr Brickler says. Results achieved The corporate storage strategy now complements the virtualised disk array on the hardware side. 'Change is a constant factor in our business and the increase and decrease in the storage requirements of groups is much easier to deal with under our unified storage strategy. For example, we have solved the e-mail bottleneck and the archived solution for e-mails has been far easier than it would have been on the old fragmented network storage,' Mr Brickler says.