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Auto provisioning still a tease

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Today, storage automation software can help you do more with limited resources. But most vendors concede that the really cool stuff - such as giving storage the smarts to detect and fix problems, retrieve different types of information and protect itself from unauthorized access - is still a work in progress, and it will be quite a while before automation makes good on its full promise.

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Standards everywhere
At last count, there were a half-dozen would-be kings of the storage management standards world. The winner matters because it will mandate the ways in which storage ultimately becomes automated into the future.

Separate initiatives are underway by IBM, EMC, Veritas, and Sun, and then there's the Common Information Model, (CIM) from the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). Most analysts are betting on CIM as the ultimate winner in this wrestling match, because it's got the weight of multiple vendors behind it and thus doesn't seek to advance only one supplier's agenda. However, each company that says it supports CIM is quick to add that CIM is at least common denominator standard. And as each company tries to build unique features into their provisioning software they move away from the CIM standard.

Taking a pessimistic view, Marco Coulter, a division vice president at Computer Associates, says "We know from our Unix days a workable common standard is never going to happen."

Nadia Khair, a senior analyst with Ovum in Boston, MA, says that the huge number of would-be standards, and the resulting disarray this causes, is one reason the market for storage management and automation tools haven't grown more quickly. "There's been no standardization, which has led to issues of interoperability and problems with integration," she says.

Bill North, director of storage software research at International Data Corp. in Mountain View, CA, agrees that one standard needs to become dominate. Customers want the ability to pick a best-of-breed solution, to mix-and-match "with impunity," he says.

Still, while most analysts also agree that regardless of whether CIM is successful, it doesn't solve all storage management problems in a multivendor shop. While CIM addresses the issue of separating the physical storage device from the file management system, "it doesn't do much to expand the filename space," says Dan Tanner, senior analyst with Aberdeen Group in Boston. Still, he's betting on CIM as "a force to be reckoned with."

Gary Fox, vice president and director of enterprise data storage at Wachovia/First Union Bank in Charlotte, N.C., says he's agnostic about which standard ultimately wins. "It doesn't matter to me which one it is," as long as the standard supports different vendors' hardware and software. "We want one tool to work across all our platforms," he says, which currently include EMC, HDS, and Compaq.

The discipline will evolve over the next two to five years into a more solid corporate citizen. It may take that long for the industry to duke it out over the various storage management- and automation-related standards-in-progress (see "Standards everywhere").

In the meantime, be prepared for this technology to set off the hype-meter, much like storage area networks (SANs) and virtualization before it. Different vendors define automation according to whatever product they've got at the moment, which makes an in-depth discussion on the topic the same as "trying to get your arms around Jell-O," says Dianne McAdam, an analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, NH.

Much of what's out there currently works only with SANs or with network-attached storage (NAS) devices and thus presumes that a shop has most or all of its storage already networked. Only a few storage-automation setups deal with direct-attached storage (DAS). (See "A sampling of provisioning software,") Also, while there's a bevy of third-party software vendors that purport to work with multiple suppliers' storage devices, most of these are start-ups trying to blaze the trail. For their part, the brand name hardware vendors are all involved in automation efforts in some form, but most work only with their own storage devices - at least for now.

So what exactly is automation software? In its purest form, storage automation is the process of turning manual tasks into things the system manages by itself, with little or no human intervention required. This can include jobs such as storage provisioning, backup, restore and other tasks managed by an application or by the user. The goal is to translate business needs - such as an Oracle database that needs to be accessible round-the-clock - into a series of specific storage-related actions that the system can deal with on its own.

According to Marco Coulter, a divisional vice president at Computer Associates International, Islandia, NY, automation software today can capture the steps to perform a task (workflow), and access the tools needed from a central point, allowing centralized automation. It can also integrate the tools with the best practice workflow to guide non-skilled parties through the task, and automate tasks and refocus staff on business objectives.

Policies can be put in place to mandate that each desktop user is allowed only 200MB of storage, for example, and if anyone tries to sneak by that limit, the storage administrator must be alerted. Or maybe the offending user is sent an automatic e-mail saying they can't do that and what options exist for the overflow.

Likewise, automation software can be set up to morph an existing storage setup into a hierarchical storage management (HSM) system. Any data not accessed in, say, 30 days can be moved to tape and the administrator notified.

Most automation software works by discovering the various storage devices attached to the SAN or NAS. As devices are added or changed, the automation software knows this and keeps itself up to date. Once the devices are accounted for, the software then tries to determine usage information, such as which applications rely on each various storage device, how often it's accessed and what percentage of the device is full and empty.

Then the specific corporate policies are put in place, such as notifying an administrator before assigning more space to an application. Once those policies are in place, the software can really start to do its work. CreekPath Systems Inc., Longmont, CO, claims volume creation on the array level can be as automated as the customer wants it to be, says Paula Dallabetta, director of marketing.

"On an EMC box, we can go in at the .BIN file to create additional volumes, zone it and then close it at the volume management level," she says. Of course, if administrators don't want all that done behind the scenes, they can specify at which points in the process they want to be involved or asked before the system continues onto the next step.

One of the oldest automation players is InterSAN, Scotts Valley, CA, which provides SAN management software called Pathline. Pathline's three-tier architecture includes specialized agents that talk to different storage subsystems, a core software platform running on Solaris and handles management and integration tasks and a database that tracks it all.

Most shops assign storage in a multistep process filled with grunt work, says Karen Dutch, vice president of marketing. Although SANs offer flexibility in meeting storage needs, the downside comes with redundant, multiple paths that could fulfill any potential storage request. Therefore, an administrator needs to check out different subsystems to decide what's currently free and where it's located. Then the administrator needs to match up the specific application's needs - i.e., if it's an accounts billable system that needs high availability or redundancy - to what's available in various SAN subsystems. Most shops have giant spreadsheets to keep track of storage availability, which then needs to be updated manually any time a change is made.

Finally, the administrator needs to use element tools to do the technical provisioning steps, including LUN masking. All these steps must be done in the correct order.

Dutch claims that Pathline turns this into a one-click process that can be done in less than a minute, vs. approximately an hour for an expert using traditional methods to provision a single LUN on a single server. Not only does this save time, but the provisioning can be handled by a business user.

All told, automation software can mimic whatever policies and procedures you've already got in place, or it can help you redefine and quantify policies that have perhaps been too squishy for too long.

The biggest problem facing automation vendors is that their software needs to work with all the various interfaces used by storage vendors. "As long as an array vendor opens its functions through an API, we can automate the process," says CreekPath's Dallabetta. "But if the hardware doesn't have an open API or uses a command-line interface, then we can't manage it." For example, she says, IBM's Shark system does "not have any public APIs, although they're in the process of providing this."

ProvisionSoft, a recent entrant into the storage automation market, gets around this problem by layering on top of the management software that comes with big-name storage arrays. In the initial release, its DynamicIT works on top of EMC's Enterprise Command Center (ECC) and HP/ Compaq's StorageWorks, with more integrations in the works. That way, mundane tasks such as zoning and LUN masking are left to the hardware-specific packages, leaving DynamicIT to make automated provisioning decisions based on metrics such as current server and storage environment, policies, past usage and SLAs.

This was first published in October 2002

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