Scavenging through the digital landfill

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Echoing the shopaholic’s cry of “you just can’t get the wardrobe space”, businesses are engaged in the shopping spree to end all shopping sprees with the seemingly endless accumulation of information. Unlike other purchases, the good thing about information is that it hardly takes up any space and disk storage prices continue to fall. But it is one thing to store the accumulated information and quite another to be able to manage it and find what you want when you want it. And this is about to get a lot more difficult, because over the next decade organisations are going to decommission a very large number of the business applications that have been responsible for managing large amounts of business data.

This takes place under many guises, such as “application rationalisation” or “process standardisation”, but whatever it is called by the technology leader in your organisation, the rate of loss of older applications is accelerating. This application decommissioning is almost universally beneficial. Organizations end up with a simpler portfolio of applications, less complexity, lower IT costs, more standardised processes and better management information.

But there is a sting in the tail – the data that gets left behind. Current data – “live” data – about customers and orders and invoices and everything relevant to the operation of the business today, all of this is transferred from the old application to the new one. But within the old application there can be years of accumulated history for which there is no readily available place in the new application. This historical data are orphaned when the parent application is decommissioned: it has a home on a disk somewhere, but cannot be accessed in a way that meaning is preserved.

Does this matter? For a lot of corporate data, the answer is clearly “no.” It’s time to load up the car with this junk and take it down to the local landfill. Wiping this data are fast, cheap and painless. But in a litigious and regulated world it is necessary to stop and think before finally getting rid of such data. You may be under regulatory mandate that obliges certain data to be retained and available for a given amount of time. And whatever you do, when wiping corporate data you must be able to show that you have done so in compliance with your corporate policy on data retention. You do have a policy on data retention, don’t you? Because if not you could find yourself in trouble if legal discovery processes are invoked.

So on the one hand we have the enterprise seeking the benefit of a root-and-branch refresh of the ageing application portfolio, and on the other hand we have the challenge of maintaining sensible access to data that is orphaned when the original applications are eliminated. This is not a new problem, but it is a substantially growing problem. Gartner estimates that by 2020 half of all business applications that were running in data centres in 2010 will have been decommissioned. To give some perspective on this estimate, during the decade from 2000 to 2010 less than 5 per cent of applications were decommissioned. This massive surge in decommissioning will not be slowed by the challenges of managing orphaned data; most organisations will seek to seize the benefits of a leaner and meaner application portfolio first, and deal with the fallout later. But deal with it they must.

What is to be done? First, ensure that your corporate counsel has an up-to-date enterprise records retention policy, and that enforcement processes are established. This will ensure that the vast majority of orphaned data can be wiped. What remains – the records that are essential to enterprise compliance with regulatory and legal requirements – demand a simple, cost-effective technology solution that will ensure the continued availability of the data. Policy first, technology second; without an effective policy, your organisation risks incurring significant costs for retaining access to rubbish.

Andy Kyte, research fellow and Debra Logan, research vice-president at Gartner

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