Automate storage management

IT process automation tools provide workflows that can help automate manual storage management processes. The real value is when these workflow engines are integrated with storage management apps to not only guide administrators through the process, but provide them with information to make intelligent decisions and automate some of the more basic tasks.

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Tools that automate complex storage processes are beginning to appear. Here's what's available and what benefits the tools can deliver today.

Managing all or most of your storage resources from a "single pane of glass" has been the Holy Grail of storage management, but the vision remains largely unrealized. For a variety of reasons, storage resource management (SRM) tools aren't engineered to deliver complex, multistep services such as storage provisioning, data migration and performance optimization across heterogeneous storage devices. They're also unable to coordinate the numerous people required to complete these tasks. When IT process automation is applied to storage management, it begins to address the issue of linking complex processes with multiple independent tools and automating some of the more rudimentary activities.

IT process automation tools provide a workflow that guides the storage administrator through the process. The real value is when these workflow engines are integrated with storage management apps to provide storage admins with information to make intelligent decisions and automate some of the more basic tasks.

Newer technologies, like storage networks, and server and storage virtualization, provide greater flexibility to mix-and-match IT resources to meet changing business needs. The ability to reallocate resources dynamically, independent of the physical configuration, has dramatically changed how IT services are delivered. But despite their benefits, newer technologies can often add management complexities.

For many firms, the yearly cost to manage an app can far outweigh its initial purchase price. In most IT organizations, it's a constant battle to balance capital and operational costs. The more complex the task, the more special management skills are required, and the management of these tasks is mostly done manually.

Highly skilled specialists are hard to find, take a long time to develop, are well compensated and difficult to keep. Jobs like provisioning storage, migrating data between arrays and optimizing performance can require the interaction of several experts. For example, moving a single application from one storage array to another may require the participation of storage, network, system, database and application admins. In addition, the business unit needs to be notified and management has to approve the changes. Through the planning, setup, execution and clean-up phases of a data migration project, there could be 50 to 100 unique operations.

To streamline the process, many companies dedicate project managers to coordinate the efforts of everyone working on a project. Most companies use Excel for status tracking and SharePoint for collaboration. These tools help, but require too much manual intervention.

All companies have a process they follow when they want to perform a storage management operation. Larger companies typically have run books that list the tasks, order of execution, individuals who will perform each task and approvals required. Run books codify a company's best practices about how it wants specific operational tasks performed. IT process automation (also referred to as run book automation) automates the end-to-end workflow associated with each procedure.

The goal of IT process automation is to move operational management from the craftsmanship era of storage management, where highly skilled personnel use a combination of scripts, point tools and manual processes, to an era of mass production where storage management can be performed in a repeatable fashion using interchangeable administrator resources.

Automating storage processes
Process automation initially began with business applications like manufacturing. It made its way into IT to automate complex server and network management tasks. Only recently has this technology been applied to storage management.

Instead of trying to provide one tool that does it all, IT process automation links disparate tools across multivendor infrastructures and cross-management domains, providing a centralized portal to request, execute and monitor IT management operations.

There are no clear-cut criteria to determine if a company will benefit from process automation. But the following indicators can be used to identify whether an IT process management solution should be considered:

  • Size and complexity of the environment. Large companies with more complex environments will benefit more from IT process automation than smaller companies. Smaller companies may be satisfied by workflow capabilities built into point management products that address a specific need.


  • Degree of change. The degree to which the IT infrastructure is growing and the frequency of changes to that environment are generally good indicators that standardizing and automating storage management processes will yield tangible benefits.


  • Outsourced functions. Storage management tasks outsourced due to their operational complexity are also candidates for IT process automation.
To achieve near-term success, the automation effort should be limited to something that's realistically deployable and shows immediate payback within three to six months (see "Implementation tips," below). In addition, today's process automation tools aren't ready to be deployed throughout the entire data center. Some IT process automation solutions are strong in server or network automation but weak in storage, while others are strong in storage and weak in other areas. For example, automating all aspects of tiered migrations, including the identification of infrequently accessed data, is probably beyond the capabilities of available technology.

The cost of IT automation tools varies, with standalone IT process automation tools tending to be more expensive than storage management tools. But workflow (process automation) is becoming a standard part of some storage management tools at no additional cost. Microsoft's Windows Workflow Foundation is a .NET Framework 3.0 service that will make it easier for application vendors to deliver workflow capabilities within their products.

Implementation tips
Make sure you can easily integrate the tool into your environment. Out-of-the-box workflows greatly accelerate deployment, but only if they're appropriate to your environment. Some organization and process change is inevitable, but the workflow needs to accommodate changes to work with your process. If the tool enforces its process on you, building support for it within your organization will be much more difficult.

Limit the scope of implementation. Tools that automate all IT processes (application, desktop, server, network, storage) sound attractive. To get a quick win and demonstrate the viability of the solution, choose a process that has a reasonable chance of success.

Invest in deployment services. IT automation products are relatively easy to install and use; the complexity is in the customization of the specific workflow. Professional deployment and training services will dramatically decrease implementation times for the majority of automation products.

A sampling of vendors
The following tools provide some level of automation for various storage workflow tasks, such as provisioning, data movement, scheduling and the configuration of the storage environment.

BMC Software Inc. BMC Run Book Automation Platform (formerly RealOps) automates routine, labor-intensive and error-prone tasks by coordinating tasks across IT silos. By integrating with the storage management capabilities of Onaro (owned by NetApp), BMC extends business service automation into the storage domain. Because Onaro is primarily a monitoring and reporting product, the combined solution addresses tasks like configuration change control, service impact monitoring and provisioning request management.

EMC Corp. The first modules of EMC's IT Process Centre (ITPC) optimize the request and delivery of storage provisioning services. ITPC works with ControlCenter to automate specific storage management tasks. Automated Resource Manager is one of the ControlCenter products ITPC uses to automate storage provisioning. Expect EMC to next address automation in the areas of compliance, fault/incident remediation and data mobility.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. Having acquired Opsware and Mercury Interactive, HP has one of the most comprehensive IT process automation portfolios. Its Operations Orchestration product provides various levels of automation to such manual tasks as building workflows, scheduling, notification and approval. Operations Orchestration integrates with HP's domain management tools for client, server, network and storage management. Storage Essentials (formerly AppIQ) is HP's tool for multivendor storage. The firm's process automation strength lies in client, server and network management domains; it's beginning to integrate storage into its IT process automation product.

IBM Corp. IBM's Tivoli Storage Process Manager (SPM) contains out-of-the-box workflows for storage provisioning and space reclamation. SPM leverages IBM's TotalStorage Productivity Center (TPC) to discover, report on and configure a multivendor storage environment. TPC also automates some storage management functions based on user-defined policies.

Incipient Inc. Incipient Automated Data Migration (iADM) software automates the data migration workflow process. It provides a central repository for server, SAN and storage configuration information required in the planning, resource reservation and execution of data migration projects. iADM comes with its own network-resident data mover software, but also supports other host-, network- or array-based data movers.

SANpulse Technologies Inc. SANpulse's SAN Logics 2.0 is an integrated SRM and run book automation tool. It automates storage management processes such as provisioning, data migration, data center consolidation, space reclamation and tier migration.

Symantec Corp. The company's Veritas Process Automation Manager (PAM) coordinates and enforces policies and complex workflows throughout the storage environment. Symantec provides device-specific adapters that work cooperatively with PAM to collect configuration information, and to make active configuration changes for processes such as provisioning, capacity reclamation, data tiering and migration.


Product selection considerations
When evaluating storage automation products, users should consider the following:

Configuration management database (CMDB). The CMDB is the core of a storage automation product. It holds a snapshot of the environment, change control, scheduling and the status of all the processes planned, currently executing and completed. CMDBs typically include environment information from the app to the storage and everything in between. This information can be stored in a single database or in a federation of subject-oriented databases. The CMDB doesn't need to be all encompassing, but it must include comprehensive information relevant to the process being automated so that it mirrors the information you currently use to perform the process manually.

The CMDB needs to hold a lot of information, so you'll need to run tests and ask the vendor for benchmarks to provide an efficient, scalable data collection mechanism. One of the initial downfalls of SRM was its scalability, and the same holds true for these tools. If discovery times are too long or accessing data is very slow, an IT process automation product will be unusable. Make sure that any product you choose can scale to meet your current and future needs. Finally, not everything can be discovered automatically. For example, asset data, resource owner and resource administrator information may be kept in proprietary databases. Your choice of tool must have the ability to import data from other databases via custom integration modules or APIs.

Operationally focused reporting. Just because all of the data required to perform a management operation is being collected, that doesn't mean the presentation of the data is sufficiently organized for efficient operational execution. SRM tools have evolved from device-centric reporting to more operational reporting with analysis and corrective action recommendations. Most automation tools also provide this level of reporting. Make sure that the data needed to complete a task isn't strewn in multiple views or reports. Aggregating these reports manually can be almost as complex and error-prone a task as if you were using multiple tools.

Service portal/dashboard. Every IT process automation tool needs a service portal and dashboard to initiate and monitor requests, and to view a queue of tasks that must be performed. Project managers also need visibility into the status of multiple concurrent projects, and access to historical information to analyze the data for process improvements over time.

Out-of-the-box workflows. Some IT pro-cess automation products have rich feature sets that can be used to automate just about any process. They're basically sophisticated programming languages with visual and policy-based logic generators, and extensive interfaces to allow integration with other apps. Theoretically, these tools could automate storage management processes, but significant development is required to integrate them with a storage-aware CMDB and storage management tools. Still, sometimes that's the only way to automate more complex management tasks. Out-of-the-box workflow products tend to focus on simpler processes.

Task automation. When possible, IT process automation tools should automate detailed storage management tasks to simplify jobs such as automatically selecting storage resources for a provisioning task based on policies. Other tasks include validating host access to storage after a storage provisioning operation is complete, ensuring that no configuration problems prevent access to data and diagnosing problems.

IT process automation is still relatively new, and its application to storage is in the early stages (see "What's next," below). While it promises to simplify and standardize storage and IT management in general, it's not a quick fix to solve storage management operational complexity. Companies that start down this path must be open to modifying their storage management processes, tools and organizations.


What's next
When applied to storage management, IT process automation tools have the potential to greatly reduce service delivery times and simplify the complexity associated with specific storage management tasks. But available tools have some limitations, so don't expect them to address complex tasks like fully automated information lifecycle management across heterogeneous, multivendor storage without any human intervention.

While automation products are still missing some of the pieces required to address more complex storage management tasks, they're evolving. In the next few years, expect to see additional enhancements, such as the following:


More out-of-the-box workflows:
Most vendors offer a limited number of out-of-the box workflows that can be used to reduce custom development work. Expect to see out-of-the-box workflows for more complex and specialized storage automation projects.

Workflow integration:
Many management tools are adding workflow capabilities that orchestrate IT process automation, each with its own proprietary workflow engine. IT process automation products will need to address how to integrate workflows from different tools. Workflow automation products built on workflow engines, like Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation (part of .NET Framework 3.0), provide a more open foundation for workflow integration.

This was first published in May 2008

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