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Storage meets Web services

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Data Center Markup Language (DCML) is a new standard that its proponents say will comprehensively describe data center environments to allow the depth of interoperability required for utility computing. The DCML Organization (www.dcml.org)--spearheaded by EDS, Opsware and Computer Associates--is at the core of the effort to develop this standard; at last count, 44 other IT technology companies were also participating members of the organization.

According to the DCML Organization, DCML--based on XML, the lingua franca of Web services--will provide a method of not only describing data center components, but will also describe dependencies among the components and operational policies that control the functionality of those components and configurations.

Documents published by the organization admit that the spec will overlap the Common Information Model (CIM) standard. But the DCML Organization claims DCML will exceed CIM because it describes management policies of data center elements--something the group says is essential in order to use automation tools to create a utility environment.

IBM sees DCML's potential as a key factor for creating a "service-oriented architecture" to fully realize a computing utility. IBM's Eric Stouffer says that some of the Web services technologies and architectures that allow applications to communicate with each other "need to trickle down to the core technology providers." This will allow applications to directly address storage and other infrastructure components to define specific needs including "service level objectives and business priorities--and even process flows."

The DCML Organization is expected to release a first draft of the spec by mid-year.

Inside jobs
Creating an internal utility storage environment presents a different set of requirements--most notably dealing with currently installed systems. Many storage hardware and software vendors tout utility products, but just how much they help enable a true utility environment will depend on how they're implemented and how well they integrate with what's already installed.

For example, 3PAR's InServ Storage Server--while not designed to "utilitize" heterogeneous or legacy environments--includes some innovative technology that the company says goes beyond the pay-per-use model. Thin provisioning, a technology that offers a new approach to capacity allocation, is at the heart of 3PAR's modular storage system. Rather than doling out disk space to an application in sizeable chunks, thin provisioning allows an application to think it has as much capacity as it needs, but actually only allocates disk space to the application when it writes data.

Savvis Communications, a St. Louis, MO, IT computing and services provider, recently decided on 3PAR systems to supply off-site storage to its customers on a utility basis. Rob McCormick, Savvis' chairman and CEO, says the keys to utility storage are high availability, real-time provisioning and attractive pricing.

McCormick says the 3PAR system allows Savvis "to differentiate the SLAs for the different types of storage in an inventive way." Thin provisioning effectively lets Savvis oversubscribe its storage services and then meet actual demands as needed.

While 3PAR's solution allows users to set up their own utility storage environments, many shops don't have the luxury of installing new arrays. But many other vendors provide some of the building blocks of utility storage--individually, these products might not provide a full utility environment, but they can help meet some utility storage criteria using currently installed equipment.

Some companies have fashioned a utility-like storage environment by developing internal storage management processes that allow them to be responsive to new requirements, while avoiding overbuying and overallocating. BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS) of Tennessee uses a quarterly storage procurement cycle to avoid having to make large-scale storage purchases. "We get a lot more free support and attention than if we told them that we're set for the next year," notes Bob Venable, manager of enterprise systems. He says they considered pay per use, but rejected the idea: "You pay a premium for flexibility."

When BCBS buys new storage, it goes into a pool from where it's eventually allocated; some older disks are kept in reserve to handle unforeseen peaks or emergencies. By using a short procurement cycle, Venable says, "We always have enough for current needs, and we're always working on the next purchase."

Epsilon's need to quickly allocate storage on a project basis led them to test utility storage at the switch level with two Sandial Shadow 14000 switches. Technical director Gaythorpe says the Shadow's ConnectIQ software, which dynamically allocates network bandwidth and allows policy-based service levels, has brought Epsilon closer to an on-demand environment. "We're using it just like a utility--it makes it so easy to just remove [or] add storage at will."

Practical matters
Whatever route a company takes on the way to a utility storage environment, the success of the effort is likely to hinge on how effectively the business groups using IT services are integrated into the process.

One of the basic precepts of the utility model is providing timely and appropriately scaled services based on business needs--and to be able to adjust nimbly as those needs evolve. Toward that end, storage managers will have to build close relationships with business units--and the lines of business will have to adjust, too.

"What you're trying to provide with the utility concept is for internal IT departments to begin to show their worth to the business units that they provide services for," says Veritas Corp.'s Bob Maness, senior director of product marketing. Veritas recently announced two additions--Storage 4.0 and Availability 4.0--to its CommandCentral storage utility suite along with an upgrade to its CommandCentral Service component. With these enhancements, users will be able to better monitor and control resource allocation and usage, administer service levels and charge back costs.

Instituting a chargeback system is another important piece of the utility puzzle. Chargebacks are an effective way for business units to determine the specific levels of service their applications require while encouraging active involvement in the process. Storage managers can use chargeback data--even if the departments are not actually billed--to measure how well storage utility services are being delivered and help educate the business units on the cost of the storage they use.

Utility storage also can serve as the foundation for more advanced and cost-effective storage management processes, such as ILM and regulatory compliance. "You'll never get to enterprise-wide ILM or DLM without something approaching utility storage underneath," says Stephanie Balaouras, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group. "You'll only have a medley of point solutions."

This was first published in June 2004

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