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Users slow to embrace storage automation

Some storage managers are still reluctant to put their trust in storage automation. But the users who are implementing automation one step at a time are finding that it can yield big benefits.

Bill north, director of research for International Data Corp.'s (IDC) storage software service, thinks he has glimpsed the future of storage management. During a demo, a vendor set up an Oracle database and piled on a simulated load. The system noticed that a performance threshold had been exceeded, captured an image of the application and automatically moved it to another server with more CPUs and reallocated and redirected the storage. As the load increased, it shifted the application and its accompanying resources to an even more capable server. Reversing the process, the load was lightened and the management system moved the application back to the original server and storage resources--all automatically.

Despite dramatic demos and a wave of automation products from vendors large and small, storage managers aren't rushing to automate their storage. To begin with, they aren't sure they're ready to trust their storage to application-to-spindle automation. While they like the savings that come from reducing labor, they want to keep control. They're also concerned about the difficulties of using these tools, and despite the embrace of the Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S) by most vendors, the challenges of multivendor interoperability remain daunting. Setting up anything but the most simplistic automation is tricky. Automation will happen, but in gradual steps, starting with no-brainers like automated tape backup and then moving on to automating discovery.

To automate or not
"You have to walk before you run," says Dennis Martin, senior analyst, The Evaluator Group, Greenwood Village, CO. That means first automating basic storage tasks such as backup, storage resource management (SRM) or problem alerting. Complex tasks such as provisioning--which can require a dozen or more steps--are best left until later. "Everybody wants to automate, but most customers are not ready to go that far," says Karen Dutch, Softek's vice president and general manager for open-systems solutions. In response, the company stopped marketing Provisioner, its automated provisioning product, and is putting its resources into its basic SRM products such as Softek Storage Manager and Softek SANView, which do basic SRM and resource discovery.

"Our top management would like to see automated provisioning and things like that, but it is kind of dangerous," says a North American information services analyst at a giant international grocery retailer. "Once you set up something like that, you start to lose control. I want to know what's going to happen before it does anything."

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) has similar concerns about control. It uses Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HP) SAN Element Manager to automate its storage operations, particularly for troubleshooting and problem detection. It stops short, however, of trying to automate the actual storage allocation. "We set thresholds to alert us when we get to, say, 80% on a LUN for a particular database. But I don't want it to automatically provision more storage at that point. I want somebody to go and sit with the DBA and figure things out," says Firooz Ghassemi, disaster recovery and HIPAA security officer at SAG's Burbank, CA, location.

Others question the value of automation. "The question is not whether to automate storage provisioning, but if doing so provides value, which means providing a better service level at a lower cost," says Robert Shinn, principal, State Street Global Advisors, Boston.

Automation challenges

Limits of automation
The latest automation products can do the job, at least in certain situations. "You can automatically provision storage under some circumstances," says Stephen Foskett, practice manager for strategy services at GlassHouse Technologies. But there are definite constraints. "You are limited by the types of equipment and the different vendors," he adds. Despite vows by storage hardware vendors to support standards, the heterogeneous nature of enterprise storage hinders automation efforts.

Specifically, different operating systems, storage arrays and host hardware can frustrate even the best automation software. "You probably can not automate every step of the storage process because the hardware or the operating system may do things in a special way," says the Evaluator Group's Martin. At some point, someone will still have to dive deep using a hardware- or operating system-specific tool to perform some low-level task like tuning the cache, adds Ash Ashutosh, executive vice president and chief technology officer at AppIQ Inc., an automation vendor.

The storage automation vendors insist they can handle the multivendor environment today. "You can do application-to-spindle automation, but not with SMI-S," says Mark Bradley, senior technology strategist for the BrightStor management suite from Computer Associates (CA). Instead, CA turns to the simple network management protocol (SNMP) and the published APIs from the various vendors to automate low-level tasks. It may initiate a task, but even then the automation tool can't control how the proprietary array actually does it, he adds. In the end, all the hardware vendors keep some functionality proprietary to their arrays.

Although EMC Corp. has helped drive the SMI-S standard, even it concedes that the immature standard can't yet enable extensive multivendor automation of complex storage operations. For example, its Control Center can do zoning on Hitachi Data Systems, HP and IBM Corp. storage platforms as well as its own, but it can only perform LUN masking with some HP arrays, according to Barry Ader, EMC's director of software product marketing.

Where companies have automatically provisioned a complex heterogeneous storage environment, they have had to do much preparation. A major New York investment house uses CreekPath Systems to automatically provision both storage area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) capacity across disk arrays from EMC, IBM, HDS and others.

The key, according to the senior vice president in charge of the storage, is solid resource discovery and well-defined workflow. "Discovery is an absolute prerequisite," he insists. The company has also standardized on the latest versions of all the various low-level firmware, another essential preliminary step.

The workflow component is critical to engendering trust in the automation; it will prevent the system from doing something unusual without approval. What the tools can't do yet, Ader adds, are higher levels of automation, such as information lifecycle management. For that, the automation software needs to distinguish storage tiers and service level commitments.

Policy and process
Even when the SMI-S standard matures, automation of complex storage tasks like provisioning isn't going to be simple. "You need a well-defined provisioning process before you can automate it. You need to have a series of structured tasks," says Jamie Gruener, senior analyst, Yankee Group, Boston.

Most organizations, however, don't have a consistent, structured provisioning process because their environments are complex and diverse. Even when they think they do, they likely haven't defined their storage processes to a sufficiently detailed level to automate them through policies. Automation vendors often provide templates and prebuilt workflows, Gruener adds, but those tools don't guarantee success.

An IT outsourcing firm for banks hopes to automate provisioning, but it has more work to do before it can apply automated tools. "The tools are not ready to use out of the box. We still have to document how we want to provision each LUN," says the storage administrator. This isn't a simple task; it entails knowing the storage environment, the network links and paths and knowing how the applications want to use storage. It also involves bringing people from different departments together.

Once you get past larger obstacles such as heterogeneous storage and the lack of process and policy, you can still get tripped up by numerous deployment and ease-of-use issues. The top management of the major global grocery retailer has high hopes for storage automation in the future, but for now just the effort to automate resource discovery--an automated provisioning prerequisite--is difficult.

Slow adoption
Vendors clearly are frustrated that despite the advances they've made with storage automation, their products are not being purchased in large numbers. To drive adoption, most offer free trials in the hope that once managers see automation in action, they'll be convinced.

"We want people to download a free copy, try it and get comfortable with it," says CA's Bradley. Similarly, AppIQ offers a two-week free trial.

Interestingly, cost doesn't appear to be the problem. None of the users contacted for this article voiced serious concerns about the cost of the products, maybe because the vendors readily negotiated. Besides, even basic SRM, the prerequisite for more advanced provisioning, can deliver a fast payback. At Peel Regional Police in Ontario, which handles the policing responsibilities for Toronto's international airport, the staff would spend 60% of their time on storage. With automation, one person handles the SRM tasks, requiring just 25% of his time.

Most storage administrators say automated provisioning isn't a high priority on their to-do lists. Much more basic storage problems--such as backups and restores--are the focus of their attention. But as interoperability standards become more widely adopted, storage administrators say automation makes sense. They are quick to add, however, the road to automated storage is a long one, better walked than run.

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