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Which is the best platform for a storage subsystem management tool?

Could you give your insight/viewpoint on the platform choice that customers are looking for to support their storage subsystem (SAN/NAS) management tool? Which is more popular: browser-based solutions like NetApp FilerView or standalone ones like EMC ControlCenter. Or is their a need for both?

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Thank you for your question. This is a very interesting question that I have seen raised to customers and in companies that I have worked with in the past.

The question at hand is whether a Web-based management solution, or thin client, is a better or worse solution than a full application, or thick client, for managing a storage environment. I think the answer is going to be a subjective one as each customer and organization is going to make a decision based on some criteria that are very hard to measure and also some criteria that are easier to measure. For example, if the organization is a governmental or military organization that does not allow management from outside of the organization's physical location, then I would bet a full-fledged application or thick client would be OK, as would a Web-based solution.

At the companies for which I worked, this discussion always came down to some simple criteria that was based on the goals that our customers provided for the management applications.

Bandwidth required
In the U.S. this may not be as big a concern since broadband solutions extend to the home, but if the company is based in Asia, bandwidth can be an issue and even using a thick client connected to a server can be a challenge.

Simplicity factor
Some believe that Web-based tools are easier to use then full thick clients. I am not sure that I agree, as I have seen some very compelling tools that are Web-based and some full thick clients that couldn't do half of the things that a Web browser, thin client, can do. I think that this comes down to the company's goals for their tool and the input that they have received from their customers.

Your example of NetApp FilerView versus EMC ControlCenter is a perfect example. The NetApp FilverView tool is meant to manage a single NetApp Filer and it does a good job for what it was intended to do. Of course, you can do more from a management perspective through the command line interface (CLI), but that is the way the tool was created. With the EMC ControlCenter product you can do everything to manage a full EMC and third-party storage environment. The EMC product has become the gold standard in the industry for managing storage and rightly so, as it has been installed on most of the companies in the world and has integration with most major third-party products. Also, EMC has modularized their product so a user can pick and choose which modules to load based on what they are trying to do. In this case, I believe that the comparison is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

To compare EMC ControlCenter with NetApp FilerView may not be the right comparison. I would suggest comparing NetApp Data Fabric Manager (DFM) with EMC ControlCenter. DFM is a Web-based management tool that sits on top of hundreds, if not thousands, of filers.

To use Java or not to use Java, that is the question
To speed multiplatform solutions Java has become the de facto standard. As a result, many of the management tools available today for the Web are written in Java and require a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) to be loaded that meets a specific version requirement. You may have had the same experience as I had many years ago: I was using a Brocade Web-based tool to manage their switches and they didn't have the JVM loaded on the system that I was working on or an Internet connection available to download it. This is an example of some of the challenges with a thin client on the Web.

Security
Look for a solution that has built-in access control, logging and roles-based management. Look to your IT standards group or define standards for security, based on what your organization uses. Security is critical to insuring that those who should have access have it and those who should not do not. Also, look to security as a way to teach those how to improve their process. With an audit log in the tool you can easily see what the team members are doing and where actions taken may cause issues. Many have told me that they call this the "Firing Log," but I look at it as a teaching tool; we all know that issues occur because of our actions, but we need to learn from our actions. Look to the Web-based tools or full clients to have integrated security components that integrate with your security standards.

Level of maturity of the tool
Many tools start as Web-based tools, but evolve quickly based on user feedback. In the case of the tools that are being discussed, EMC's ControlCenter is a more mature tool that has been in use across both mainframe and open systems environments, which may explain why it is a thick client, while the NetApp FilerView product is a newer solution that focuses on the open systems space only. I could see these environments diverging on their requirements for the medium of delivery of a tool, but can't really understand why; only that when EMC created ControlCenter, the Java technologies that have been available for several years were not available. What do you think?

Also, there is a middle ground to my comments and a solution: an applet or downloaded application that is neither a full thick client nor a Web browser-based thin client. This kind of applet is downloaded in a short time, usually using a Java-based application, and provides many of the advantages of using a full thick client with the minimal requirements of installing software that is usually associated with a Web browser solution.

I believe that you should look past the medium of delivery of the management tool -- Web, applet or full client -- and focus on the capabilities of the solution. In other words, does the management application provide the features and functionality that you require to meet your goals? If it does, then you can take the subjective piece under advisement with your vendor of choice and push for whichever solution you require. Let me know if this helped you with your thought process or not.

This was first published in October 2005

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