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Storage managers grapple with Windows

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Windows or Unix: weighing in

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WINDOWS BENEFITS
Easy-to-use, graphically intuitive administrative tools simplify the process of storage management.
Storage resource management can be tightly linked with operating policies through integration with other Windows services, such as Active Directory and coming .NET-based services.
Many systems give users direct access to files using Windows-based storage management applications. This provides a seamless extension of the existing environment.
Doesn't require proprietary and expensive hardware.
UNIX BENEFITS
Backup platforms are already optimized for fast movement of data.
Underlying kernel is more stable and reliable.
Has long offered high-granularity management of storage resources.
Standard images speeds backup and recovery--Windows requires reinstallation and tweaking.
Possesses mature application and resource management systems.

Steep learning curve
Despite Microsoft's efforts to give Windows feature parity with Unix, differences still persist.

Robert Dominique, senior Unix system administrator with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, knows all too well the differences between Windows 2000 and Unix-based storage management. The CSA maintains two separate SANs, with 1TB of storage supporting high-end Unix computing applications and a second, 3TB Dell-based SAN supporting Windows administrative software and file-and-print services.

As CSA's workforce has grown to around 800 employees, managing Windows partition has grown commensurately while the Unix environment has maintained relatively static. That presented a steep learning curve for Dominique's team.

"The Windows and Unix SANs were not in the same league," Dominique says. "The Unix technology is much more of a higher level [solution] where the management is done on the SAN, but the Windows one was really at the lower end: You put the management software on each client, so it's decentralized and offers more risk for error."

While it's easier to manage business continuity and backup strategies across fewer platforms, homogeneity is a luxury that's disappearing. Storage managers are--or will soon be--dealing with a heterogeneous array of operating environments with storage to match.

Effective storage management requires choosing a management platform capable of bridging the gaps between environments and, in particular, delivering Unix's robust enterprise-class data management features to still less-mature Windows environment.

QuadGraphics' Thomas, for one, points to Windows' "very limited toolset" for repairing file system damage on the fly--without compromising users' access to their data.

"Windows offers a lot of flexibility that we can pass to our users," he says. We can fine-tune how we present that storage to our end users. But having to basically bring the system down to perform a chkdsk [imposes] an expensive time cost on our production."

Java consoles gaining favor
Even with Windows Server 2003 adding new storage-related features, it will take time and experimentation to ascertain how they measure up with their Unix analogues, and still longer before its storage services are mature enough for many storage administrators to bet their jobs on. This could also dampen demand for the many new NAS devices playing the ease of manageability card by incorporating a Windows .NET kernel.

The problem is compounded by the differences in complexity and maturity of enterprise management platforms themselves. Whereas most SAN vendors provide proprietary management tools, operating system limitations mean that comparable versions of the tools don't always offer exactly the same features.

Microsoft checking off users' wish list
Here are some of the most in-demand storage features, and how Microsoft plans to use them to close the gap with Unix:
Snapshot capabilities: Unlike Unix, Windows 2000 has no built-in snapshotting capabilities for point-in-time backups. However, Microsoft has identified this capability as a key feature of Windows Server 2003, which will enable snapshots using its built-in Virtual Shadow Copy Services(VSS) feature. Purpose-built writers will provide snapshot capabilities for specific applications.
Block-level virtualization: Existing environments rely on the storage subsystem itself to handle block-level file manipulation. In Windows Server 2003, however, Microsoft will introduce Virtual Disk Service (VDS), a component providing block-level virtualization of data. VDS will be supported with a menu of APIs that will give applications a standard mechanism for manipulating high-granularity chunks of data.
Hierarchical storage management (HSM): Once a favorite trick of mainframe administrators, HSM has gradually worked its way down the food chain. Windows, however, still lacks core HSM functionality. However, Microsoft has no plans to integrate HSM features into the platform, instead deferring to third parties.
Real-time volume growth: Many Unix systems support on-the-fly resizing of online disk, but Windows has traditionally required a reboot when volume changes are made. Windows Server 2003 will allow the use of volume mount points to graft new name spaces onto existing folders--this capability will extend across clustered volumes to enable non-stop operation.
Connection redundancy: One feature long absent from Windows is Multipath I/O (MPIO), a standard that's been supported in Unix and only available within Windows via third-party add-ons. Windows Server 2003 will support MPIO through a basic driver allowing storage administrators to define up to 32 paths between storage and server--improving redundancy and availability.
Remote SAN booting: This feature is important in distributed environments where SANs may be spread across sites. Windows Server 2003 will allow clusters to be extended onto SANs, in many cases allowing remote booting from a Fibre-attached SAN.

Recognizing that each platform will have its supporters--and its role within the enterprise--many storage ISVs are bridging the gap with Java-based management consoles that deliver a common management standard to both worlds.

"Early adopters of SAN technology are looking for ways to better utilize those SANs," says Karen Dutch, vice president of marketing with management software vendor InterSAN, of Scotts Valley, CA. The company's Pathline storage management tool runs across Windows NT, 2000 and Unix servers. "They have NT SANs, Unix SANs and all these islands that didn't provide much more benefits than DAS [direct-attached storage]. Customers are looking for consistency and want a level of abstraction that goes above any one tool."

Pathline, like many products in the emerging storage resource management (SRM) market, provides that abstraction by automating common storage management tasks--the system ensures compatibility with a range of SAN hardware, regardless of operating systems.

In such an environment, storage is measured in terms of availability, asset management, security configuration and monitoring and storage provisioning. And because it's based on Java, the management console can be run from anywhere on the network.

In many cases, the complexity of managing large numbers of distributed servers and storage devices works against the storage manager no matter which operating systems are installed. IT staff at the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba, found Windows was more than adequate once they centralized the backup and recovery of data across the city's many departments and applications, then used IBM Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) to provide consistent data recovery across a raft of Windows NT and 2000, Novell NetWare and Sun Solaris-based servers.

Historically, storage within the various departments--running major applications including PeopleSoft, the Oracle database, Microsoft Exchange and DB2 Data Warehouse as well as Web hosting and file and print services--had been managed separately from more than 15 different locations. This led to a large amount of DAS storage split over a hundred servers, which presented a storage management headache.

Highly distributed storage also made it difficult for individual departments to cost-justify the expense of a high-end tape library. By consolidating their storage backup and recovery onto an IBM 3583 Ultrium Scalable Tape Library, the departments improved management, backup, recoverability and systems availability. The city soon expects to upgrade to an even larger IBM 3584 UltraScalable Tape Library.

Winnipeg's IT team have found Windows to be more than adequate for management of typical backup and recovery services.

"Most other companies implement TSM on Unix, but one of the major reasons we went with the Windows solution was because the cost of the server was much lower," says Terence Chan, systems software administrator with the City of Winnipeg. Using Windows also provides a more seamless interface for the city's employees, who are running Windows desktops and can log directly onto the TSM console to browse and recover backed up files. Such democratic storage management would be unthinkable in a Unix-based environment designed mainly to move data from server to tape as quickly as possible.

Clearly, there are still a range of opinions as to which is the better platform for storage management. Unix has its robustness, maturity and broad feature set behind it, while Windows benefits from a short innovation cycle, lower price and the easy integration with desktop platforms and other servers.

Homogeneous environments are naturally easier to manage than those with multiple platforms, yet the way application environments are going it's clear that homogeneity will become increasingly rare--unless it's due to standardization on Windows at Unix's expense. In the meantime, businesses running both environments need to carefully assess various vendor approaches to ensure consistent storage management that reaches from one side of the enterprise to the other.

This was first published in April 2003

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