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Tech Roundup: Growing storage infrastructures require provisioning tools

Stephen J. Bigelow, WinIT

Storage administrators must provide network users with access to hundreds of gigabytes (even terabytes) of data,

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while making the most efficient use of available storage infrastructure. But efficiency demands planning -- allocating storage requires thoughtful consideration and careful management to ensure that each enterprise application receives an adequate amount of space, while maintaining (or improving) SAN performance. Storage provisioning allows administrators to parcel out available storage to meet the needs of key applications or enterprise activities. Provisioning tools play an essential role in this process, simplifying and often automating the management, monitoring and reporting of enterprise storage resources. "Think of storage as inventory," says Greg Schulz, senior analyst at the Evaluator Group. "Provisioning tools allow you to get that inventory out of the warehouse and into use with the consumer [storage users]." As enterprise storage grows, provisioning and the use of tools will become more and more essential to businesses of all sizes.

The importance of provisioning

There's far more to expanding SAN storage than just adding drives. SAN space must be prepared for use and configured for access through established (usually redundant) storage network pathways. Storage must also include security and access control to prevent unexpected storage sharing and prevent users from moving or deleting each another's 'data. Until recently, the process of preparing and allocating SAN storage has required administrators to deal with multiple components through a series of separate steps. This process often involves individual tools (dubbed "element managers") and results in errors and frustration. "It can be done (and it is being done) with separate element managers to handle the host, switch and storage." says Brian Garrett, analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, "But provisioning tools are coming along to help automate and simplify that process."

Analysts agree that provisioning tools offer a wealth of significant benefits. Unified tools reduce mistakes, ease complexity and save considerable time, which can then be devoted to other pressing IT issues. But provisioning tools go far beyond direct storage allocation to include monitoring and reporting tasks. "You now have an audit trail," Garrett says. "You can start using a provisioning tool and you've got a centralized place where all of your changes are being logged." Reporting not only highlights the current state of network storage, but can also help IT management to plan proactive upgrades and expansions.

Although provisioning is important to all SAN-enabled businesses, provisioning tools offer more value to a large enterprise, where economies of scale can better justify the tools' cost and IT labor expense. "If a small environment only has 1 terabyte (TB) to provision across 10 servers, where a large enterprise might have 100 TB across 200 servers, the benefits [of provisioning tools] are much larger in that enterprise environment," Schulz says. One place where provisioning tools have gained favorable attention is in merger/acquisition environments. The difficulties of merging various storage environments can often be eased by using provisioning tools to help automate the consolidation process.

Large vendors are taking control

Provisioning Tool Vendors
AppIQ Inc. (HP)

3 Par Data Inc.

WysDM Software

Crosswalk

CreekPath Systems

EMC Corp.

Hitachi Data Systems Inc. (HDS)

IBM Tivoli

Symantec Corp.

Network Appliance Inc.

Engenio Information Technologies Inc.

Sun Microsystems Inc.

There are numerous provisioning tools available in the marketplace, but features and capabilities can vary widely. "I may want to have a tool that can do more than just help me with the allocation process," Schulz says. He notes that provisioning tools can assist with configuration, storage assignment or security. The tool can also help an organization understand its storage status, see how the storage is being used and know when to plan for more capacity. 'Schulz says that a provisioning tool must align to your organization's unique needs. "Have a good understanding of what your needs are, what your expectations are and what you want a tool to do for you." Provisioning styles will also impact your choice. For example, an organization experiencing rapid storage growth and busy provisioning workloads may benefit from a different tool than a business with static storage needs (occasional and limited growth) and light provisioning needs.

The most exciting and interesting provisioning tools come from smaller startups such as [in no particular order] AppIQ Inc., Crosswalk, WysDM Software Inc., 3Par Data Inc., and CreekPath Systems, though analysts have observed startups quickly disappearing as large players move in. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the recent acquisition of AppIQ by Hewlett-Packard StorageWorks Software. Partnerships are also a major factor to consider. A quick look at CreekPath's homepage offers a lengthy list of major partnerships. As startups are acquired, commit to OEM agreements or embrace other strategic partnerships, only the giants such as EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Inc. (HDS), Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Tivoli, Symantec Corp. (Veritas), Network Appliance Inc., Engenio Information Technologies Inc., and Sun Microsystems Inc. will be left standing. Given the rapid consolidation taking place with provisioning vendors, it's important to consider your vendor carefully when evaluating any provisioning tool.

Selecting a provisioning tool

The real goal for provisioning tools is to support a heterogeneous environment that spans a wide variety of storage systems. Vendors often work toward such interoperability, though that goal is not always achieved. "There are times when they [vendors] compete, and there are times when they find opportunistic reasons to collaborate -- the idea is 'coopetition,' " Schulz says. As a result, it's vital to ensure that any provisioning tool will adequately support your storage infrastructure. But it's equally important to gauge the vendor's ability to support future storage products and protocols. "Suppose a new technology comes out in the next few months," says Richard Ackerman, senior consultant at GlassHouse Technologies Inc. "It may take that [vendor] company 60 days to six months before they support the new version of a storage device." The same consideration holds true for software elements such as agents, so be sure to identify the work involved with patches and agent upgrades. Ultimately, provisioning vendors with comprehensive lab facilities and strong ties to storage manufacturers can generally provide a superior response to emerging technologies.

There are additional details to consider. Provisioning tools should offer analytical features that can gather information about your storage environment and help a company make more informed business decisions. Storage infrastructures are sometimes distributed across multiple business areas. So, tools should provide workflow automation and integrate with CRM applications to ensure that provisioning tasks are implemented uniformly under each department. "I think the workflow automation piece is important," Ackerman says. "It also helps you (from a process and procedures standpoint) with change management and troubleshooting. You can see who did what." Look for economies of scale where the enhanced intelligence and automation of a provisioning tool can be used to automate common or repetitive tasks.

With so much attention paid to storage growth and allocation, storage administrators often fail to recognize the importance of storage removal (deallocation of resources), though this is quickly changing. . "A big thing in the limelight right now is the appropriate way to remove resources," Ackerman says. Factors like server consolidation, application consolidation, and server and storage reclamation are forcing users to pay close attention to the way resources are recovered and reused. For example, reclaimed storage is often kept idle for some period before it is reallocated, allowing former users to recover important data inadvertently left on the recovered storage space.

Vendor training is another issue that plays into any major technology decision. Analysts say that implementation and adoption should not be terribly difficult, but recommend in-house lab testing of any new provisioning tool (if possible) prior to purchase. This allows IT staff to become familiar with the tool before vendor training sessions. A staff that is already familiar with the basics can focus on more complex and comprehensive questions, such as tuning and optimization and glean the maximum benefit from training expenditures.

The future of provisioning

Provisioning tools are not new, but their importance to the enterprise is only just being recognized. "While they're needed, they may not be high on the overall IT priority list because they may be seen as discretionary rather than essential," Schulz says. "While they might save us some money, what's the real payback or the real effective improvement?" The onus is on vendors to better articulate the benefits and business improvements offered by provisioning tools. It's not just a matter of improving the GUI -- better hardware and software integration will be essential for future provisioning products.

Looking forward, analysts predict several important developments. At a high level, provisioning tools should become easier and quicker to use through wizards and improved product intelligence that will likely feature SMI-S compatibility. Such developments are already being deployed in low-end small and midsized business products. Enterprise provisioning will also provide additional automation and superior workflow features to support difficult end-to-end enterprise provisioning tasks. "The toughest place to get people over is the provisioning within the switch," Ackerman says. He also foresees provisioning tools with more diagnostic capabilities and able to discern when system operation fails to match configuration preferences.

Schulz expects tighter integration with Windows. "When a storage device is added, Windows will have more integrated tools to facilitate the deployment of that storage device." He also sees more specific features gaining acceptance, such as thin provisioning, overprovisioning, dynamic optimization, Quality of Service attributes and "just-in-time" allocation for faster provisioning operations. Garrett sees a future for open source, citing IBM's recent support for open source in storage management. However, it's far too early to tell how the storage industry will embrace open source initiatives.


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