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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

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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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