Can tools streamline provisioning?

Virtualization was last year's buzz word, and it looks like provisioning may be this year's. We dissect what these tools actually do and how to choose which ones that are likely to actually be useful in your environment.

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Step by step provisioning
The only thing more difficult than allocating storage in today's networked storage environments is getting storage providers to agree on exactly what storage provisioning means. The word "provisioning" is quickly joining the overhyped, fuzzily defined space carved out by the "V" word: virtualization.

The complexity of provisioning storage in a storage area network (SAN) environment differs for each storage request. Sometimes the steps are quite straightforward, other times highly complex. Listed below is a high-level list of steps, starting at the storage device and going all the way up the volume level. This list of steps, provided by Gartner Inc., outlines what tasks will need to be considered at one time or another in the storage provisioning process.

STORAGE DEVICE MANAGEMENT
  • Create the RAID
  • Create the volume from the RAID
  • Assign the LUN to the volume
  • Select a storage subsystem and storage controller
  • Select and map the volume in the controller pair
  • Set up controller failover
SAN DEVICE MANAGEMENT
  • Select the storage array port
  • Set the SAN fabric port zones
  • Select the host bus adapter (HBA) ports
  • Map the volume to the HBA
  • Map the HBA LUNs to the operating system and file system
DATA MANAGEMENT
  • Determine whether multiple paths are necessary
  • Set up multiple paths
  • Set up replication (if necessary)
  • Adjust backup to accommodate the new or updated volume
VOLUME MANAGEMENT
  • Create or update the volume
  • Create or update file system or volume manager
  • Adjust storage monitoring
Source: Gartner Inc.

Provisioning is potentially a mission critical application for storage. The confusion sets in because there are many ways to provision storage. For example, there are end-to-end provisioning solutions, as well as storage array- and network-based solutions, plus native operating system volume managers. There's a solution for all provisioning definitions.

But before you select a provisioning solution, read the fine print: EMC's ControlCenter (ECC) promises seamless provisioning capabilities if you're primarily using EMC's storage arrays. Computer Associates (CA), in Islandia, NY, will automate storage provisioning using its BrightStor Storage Resource Manager (SRM), assuming you have StoreAge Networking Technologies' Storage Virtualization Manager (SVM) running in the background. And Veritas' current release of SANPoint Control will give you end-to-end storage provisioning capabilities, provided you have Veritas' Volume Manager software installed on servers in your environment.

Perhaps because of vendors' conflicting claims and the resulting confusion, automated storage provisioning is not a high priority for many users, according to numerous surveys. Eric Pitcher, CA's associate VP of BrightStor brand management, concurs, saying he doesn't see a lot of pent-up market demand for this technology. Says Pitcher: "The concept of SRM, which allows users to see what they have, is just starting to gain acceptance. Provisioning is way down the must-have list."

What is provisioning?
Gartner Inc. defines provisioning as the process of adding, deleting or modifying the configuration of storage required for a given application, including devices, replicas and network paths. CA's VP of BrightStor solutions, Bob Davis, says, "Everyone in the industry is wrestling with the question of what exactly constitutes provisioning." Davis defines provisioning as anything from the first step of allocating raw disk space to a server to extending a file system on an operating system.

Basically, provisioning definitions range from tightly focused concepts to pie-in-the-sky promises. Bill Huber, the CTO of San Diego-based StoneFly Networks, defines provisioning simply as having volume management capabilities-- where volume management gives users the ability to create arbitrary size volumes anywhere out of anything in the storage pool. Veritas, on the other hand, takes a more expansive view of provisioning. Kevin Coughlin, the senior product manager for Veritas' SANPoint Control, expands the definition of provisioning to include not just storage, but computing resources as well.

The task of provisioning
Other issues further cloud the whole concept of provisioning. For instance, who should perform the task of provisioning? CA's Davis observes that the tasks individuals perform will differ significantly depending on the size of the IT shop. He believes that, in small shops, one person can probably do it all, while in enterprise shops, there will be multiple levels of administration with different departments performing different tasks.

DataCore Software's director of product marketing, Augie Gonzalez, says that the conventional approach to provisioning networked storage is ad hoc, labor intensive, time consuming and error prone. The current process used by many organizations is akin to having too many cooks in the kitchen--it's difficult to coordinate and the results are not repeatable. Both Gonzalez and Davis view current methods of provisioning as too difficult, as it now stands, and do not currently see any single tool solving the problem.

The offerings from CA illustrate Davis' point that more than one tool is needed to solve the problem. CA currently automates provisioning through a partnership with StoreAge to provide an end-to-end provisioning solution. CA offers its native BrightStor SRM product to perform policy-based threshold monitoring that monitors servers and detects when thresholds have been exceeded. When a threshold is exceeded, it notifies StoreAge's SVM with details on how much to expand the volume and when. StoreAge's SVM then expands the volume by a predefined amount and notifies CA's BrightStor SRM with the new volume size information.

Fujitsu Softek's solutions also support users who will need more than one tool to do provisioning. While the company has for some time offered its Softek Storage Manager product as an SRM tool, Fujitsu recently upgraded this tool to provide enhanced capacity planning, reporting and provisioning capabilities at the server level. For those organizations seeking to simplify, consolidate and automate storage provisioning in a heterogeneous storage environment at the storage network level, the company now offers Softek Storage Provisioner, which can operate alone or with the Storage Manager software.

Where to provision
CA's and Fujitsu Softek's two software offerings point to the other major issue that users face in regard to provisioning: Where should provisioning occur? Currently, it can be done in a number of ways: on the storage array, at the network level, on the server or in a combination of all three of these places (see "Four ways to provision storage array solutions"). Answering to that question depends on what you want your environment to look like.

For provisioning to occur at the storage array level requires either a command line interface (CLI) or a GUI. In addition, more advanced functions can be obtained through utilization of the APIs of the storage array itself. The tools supplied by the major storage vendors (EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), IBM and others), including EMC's ControlCenter and HDS' HiCommand software, currently provide this level of API integration with their own storage arrays and, to a limited degree, with their competitors.' Third-party software solutions such as CreekPath Systems' AIM Suite and Veritas' SANPoint Control offer these advanced functions to the extent that they have obtained and implemented the APIs of the storage array vendors into their products.

Testing a provisioning software product
In today's current business environment, which is characterized by limited staff and even more limited dollars, finding the staff time-much less the budget-to test any new software comes with its own set of challenges and risks. So to help mitigate the risks and narrow the number of storage provisioning products to test, here are some suggestions:

First, document the makeup of your environment and then pick a corresponding solution. For relatively small networked storage environments (20 servers or fewer) with homogeneous operating systems or storage arrays that come from a single vendor, look to choose either a server-based or storage array-based methodology that capitalizes on these similarities. For larger heterogeneous environments, shops should be looking to start testing network-based solutions. The market appears to be heading in this direction for enterprise environments, since this methodology goes a long way toward simplifying heterogeneous networked storage.

Second, envision what you want your environment to look like. If you want to start building scripts now that automate the provisioning of storage, then you better have a product that can grow with you so you don't have to throw all your work out in a few years. On the other hand, if you just want to bring one vendor's product in to start getting comfortable with the technology while remaining ambivalent about whether you use this vendor's product long term or not, now is an excellent time to do so. Vendors are anxious to bring their products in and show you what they can do.

Finally, you will need to decide whether you want to run formal tests on the product or do a limited deployment of it. Both options have their pros and cons. If you run formal tests on the software, you avoid installation costs down the road. Yet knowing how to build the test environment with a product you don't know much about, much less knowing what to test and how to measure the results, is an iffy proposition. Probably a better choice is to lay out a little bit of money now and do a limited deployment of the product without making any long-term commitments to any particular vendor. It will help you understand the technology as a whole, determine what you want and/or need to test with this technology and, in so doing, enable you to make a better long-term decision about how to proceed with this technology.

For provisioning to occur at the network level also requires a CLI or GUI interface. The tools supplied by the vendors in this space, such as DataCore Software's SANsymphony, FalconStor Software's IPStor, IBM's SAN Volume Controllers (SVCs), StoneFly Networks' Storage Concentrators and StoreAge Networking Technologies' SVM, provide advanced functions when used with their own network-based storage controllers.

However, these vendors' relationships with third-party software companies--which could provide tools to manage and interoperate with these network-based solutions--are minimal. Notable exceptions would be the case of CA's relationship and utilization of StoreAge's SVM and Fujitsu Softek's ownership of DataCore Software's SANsymphony product. This current lack of integration with any larger third-party vendor's software, coupled with a common lack of compliance with the early releases of the common information model (CIM) among these solutions, may limit the appeal of this technology when it's seen from an enterprise-management perspective.

A third way for provisioning to occur is on the server. On servers it may be done using either the operating systems' native volume management utilities such as HP-UX's logical volume manager (LVM), Novell NetWare's native NWConfig or IBM AIX's cfgmgr or a third-party tool such as Veritas' Volume Manager. These tools discover the underlying LUNs presented to them by the storage arrays, then carve up the volume and represent the volume to the host's applications.

Provisioning sweet spot
The sweet spot that appears to be emerging for provisioning is the component that consolidates all of these different approaches. This method presents a single interface to the user that allows them to provision storage at any or all of these three layers.

Existing storage array vendors may start out with an edge in this area, because they may optionally wrap their storage provisioning software around new storage array offerings. In addition, they are all looking to extend those provisioning capabilities to other arrays. This gives them a decided advantage with their existing installed base, which is already familiar with their current software. Plus, with new capabilities being added to provision on other vendors' storage arrays, the impetus to bring an all-inclusive third-party management tool into your environment may be minimal, especially since it's now a nondisruptive decision to keep using the installed software.

Reinforcing the decision to stay on what you already know and use is the fact that the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA's) CIM initiative is gaining momentum. While StoneFly Networks' Huber still sees current SNIA activity as being focused on switches and zoning, he forecasts that users can look for a 1.1 revision a year from now that will enable almost any CIM-compliant tool to magically provision storage and do zoning on any CIM-compliant device.

With this revision on the horizon and most storage array vendors already subscribing to CIM in theory if not in practice, there's no reason to believe they won't someday be able to offer basic provisioning capabilities for their competitors' arrays in the software as it exists now. However, Huber cautions that he doesn't believe this next revision of CIM will create independence from storage devices to perform advanced functions such as creating mirrors among different vendors' storage arrays.

Four ways to provision storage arrays
STORAGE ARRAY-BASED SOLUTIONS

Characteristics:
  • Only manages storage branded from one vendor
  • Offers LUN masking capabilities
  • May allow users to create LUNs of different sizes
  • LUNs can be presented on different storage controllers
  • Management software resides on a server outside the data path
Some examples are: EMC ControlCenter SAN Manager, Hewlett-Packard OpenView Storage Allocator, Hitachi HiCommand Device Manager, IBM TotalStorage ESS Specialist and Xiotech REDI Volume Director

NETWORK-BASED SOLUTIONS

Characteristics:
  • Can manage any vendor's storage
  • Offers LUN masking capabilities
  • Allows users to create LUNs of different sizes
  • Software resides on a switch or in a black box in the data path
Some examples are: DataCore SANsymphony, FalconStor IPStor, Fujitsu Storage Provisioner, IBM SAN Volume Controllers and StoneFly Networks Storage Concentrators

SERVER-BASED SOLUTIONS

Characteristics:
  • Can manage any vendor's storage
  • Offers volume management capabilities
  • Discovers LUNs and then presents them as volumes of different sizes to host applications
  • Software either comes natively with OS or may be purchased separately
Some examples are: HP-UX's logical volume manager utility, IBM AIX's cfgmgr utility, Microsoft's Disk Manager utility, Novell's NetWare NWConfig utility, Veritas' Volume Manager

END-TO-END SOLUTIONS

Characteristics:
  • Requires deployment of agents on servers
  • Works in conjunction with storage array, network-and server-based provisioning solutions
  • Discovers LUNs and presents them as volumes of different sizes to host's applications
  • Management software resides on a server outside of the data path
Some examples are: CreekPath Systems' AIM Suite, EMC's ControlCenter (multiple components), Fujitsu's Storage Manager, InterSan's PathLine, Storability's Global Storage Manager, StoreAge Networking Technologies' SVM and Veritas' SANPoint Control

Yet buyers hoping to piggyback their storage provisioning software solutions on top of their storage purchases need to be aware of the long-term implications of this approach. According to Bob Passmore of Gartner Inc., the cost of a software storage solution from a traditionally hardware-only vendor such as EMC may be up to seven or eight times as much as that of a third-party software solution from Fujitsu Softek or IBM. Yet given that any of these solutions contain many different components with many variables, it's hard to say whether any current comparisons are truly accurate.

Access to any hardware vendor's storage array APIs will give independent storage software vendors such as CA, CreekPath, Fujitsu Softek and Veritas an edge over their storage array vendor counterparts. Access to the APIs lets storage software vendors automate the advanced functions of any storage array, such as mirroring and snapshots, through the use of scripts and wizards.

Conversely, the likelihood of one storage array vendor either selling or swapping its APIs with its competitors seems improbable, at best. While vendors such as EMC have announced its intention to reverse engineer the other vendors' storage arrays to manage and monitor them, customers may never know whether EMC got everything completely right. The $10,000 question is how many, if any, of its customers will care whether the company gets it 100% right, especially if buyers get most--if not all--of the provisioning functionality they need out of EMC's product provisioning on these competing storage arrays.

Move to the middle
Despite the promise of these integrated end-to-end provisioning solutions, the whole approach starts to break down in large shops with heterogeneous server, switch and storage environments. In these environments, even the best-designed product will only interoperate with a certain number of storage arrays and switches, and there will always be a lag time between when new features come to market and when they can be used by the software designed and implemented to manage them. Most of the tools on the market only marginally provision storage on the storage arrays of the growing number of providers of serial ATA (SATA) and midtier storage arrays.

This may help explain why companies such as Veritas are moving their products down into the network (Veritas' Volume Manager is currently being beta tested with Brocade) and companies like EMC are moving the intelligence of their arrays up into the network, as evidenced by EMC's recent announcement to do so with Cisco. It also helps explain why companies such as Fujitsu Softek and IBM offer products that enable a central point of storage provisioning, regardless of the tier or intelligence of the storage array behind it.

Veritas' Coughlin states that Veritas' Volume Manager (VM) product is now being designed to run in the SAN fabric. He believes that this initiative will enable customers to go where they want while centralizing online storage management.

While some of the larger vendors still see this network-based technology as being in its infancy, others, such as DataCore and FalconStor, have been shipping this technology for at least a couple of years. FalconStor's director of product management, Jon Greene, sees the fact that the big boys of storage--such as EMC, IBM and Veritas--are jumping into this market as a validation of this space.

Testing it out
Regardless of which provisioning approach an organization decides to pursue, an important step to take before choosing any solution is to determine how to test it in your environment. But before doing so, some preliminary work needs to be done.

For those who do choose to start experimenting with this software (see "Step by step provisioning"), Fujitsu Softek's Jean Banko recommends that users begin by getting an understanding of their current environment. To do so, customers should start out by measuring current utilization rates, finding out how often data is changing, determining what disaster recovery plans are in place and doing some capacity planning to forecast future needs. Once those steps are completed, users can then start testing various products.

FalconStor's Jon Greene recommends a phased approach. Rather than taking the big jump and trying to purchase a one-size-fits-all provisioning solution at this point, he advises that users attempt to solve a specific problem with provisioning. For instance, users may want to consolidate and provision storage behind a certain set of application servers. Alternatively, they may want to use the more advanced technology in some of the provisioning solutions to create a snapshot of the data to a secondary tier of disk that may be backed off to tape and used to shorten the backup window.

Veritas' Coughlin also believes that the best approach to take with provisioning is to start using it in some capacity. He still feels there is a lot of hype around this technology and that, ultimately, it comes back to trust--trusting that what the software promises it will actually deliver. Right now, he primarily sees customers wanting to discover and visualize their storage environments, with some customers willing to accept step-by-step workflow and policy-based provisioning. Most users, he says, aren't willing to automate their environments using the current releases of software.

As provisioning software continues to improve, you should start dipping your toes into the water in order gain an understanding about how automated provisioning will work in your storage environment.

This was first published in August 2003
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