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Veritas' StorageCentral formidable storage resource management application

Veritas' StorageCentral may be Windows-only, but it's still a formidable storage resource management application.

Product snapshot
Veritas StorageCentral Standard Edition 5.2
Storage resource manager
Key Features
Supports Active Directory and NetApp filers
Rich policy and reporting features
Currently only supports Windows Platforms
Starts at $3,149
Storage resource management (SRM) products are finally beginning to gain some attention. Storage administrators have found that adding hardware is at best a stopgap solution for storage capacity problems, and that changing the data retention habits of users is a far better long-term solution.

This realization has renewed interest in SRM applications, such as Veritas Software Corp.'s StorageCentral 5.2, which is one of a new crop of SRM programs, such as AppIQ Inc.'s StorageAuthority Suite and Northern Parklife Inc.'s Storage Suite, among others. These products demonstrate that a significant ROI is possible when applying software to a storage management problem.

Veritas StorageCentral Standard Edition supports Windows environments including XP, NT, 2000, Server 2003 and Storage Server 2003. Minimum system requirements vary, depending on the functionality of the agent being installed, but typically a supported operating system with 512MB of main memory, 50MB of disk space for the agent and some additional disk space for the database will be sufficient.

Installing the agents and options require varying levels of administrative access. StorageCentral Standard Edition requires only local administrative access, while the Active Directory (AD) and Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) editions require local and domain administrative access. During installation, two additional groups are created to read and modify the AD: SCRead and SCWrite. StorageCentral also requests an administration account name to manage its services. If you use the system account to manage these services, you're likely to run into an identification error when launching the application. This is a known problem and the workaround is available and documented on Veritas' Web site.

For mass installations, StorageCentral can be installed on a Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS), and then propagated to networked clients.

Client agents are installed on each of the managed application servers and are responsible for sending raw information about storage resources to the database. During installation, you can choose whether the database is local to each instance of StorageCentral or centralized to the "managing" instance. By default, the database of choice is Access, but you can use SQL Server to tap its richer feature set.

Veritas offers an AD edition of StorageCentral that lets you normalize your storage resource policies across the enterprise by writing into the AD. To enable this functionality, AD's schema must be modified during the installation to add attributes and classes to the layout. This happens automatically during installation of the AD option, as does the population of the AD with registry data.

The NetApp filer option allows the network-attached storage (NAS) resources to be managed in the same way that direct-attached storage (DAS) or a storage area network (SAN) is managed through the connected application server. For this option, the minimum supported filer OS version is Ontap 6.4, and the common Internet file system (CIFS) and the simple network management protocol (SNMP) must be enabled and configured. Because Ontap 6.4 is not a full-blown operation system, a general-purpose Windows server running a remote agent and Microsoft Management Console (MMC) must be in the same domain as the filer(s) it will manage. In addition, a share named "Veritas" must be configured on each filer you want to register and monitor with the remote agent. A single remote agent can manage multiple filers.

Installation of StorageCentral 5.2 Standard Edition and the options requires a reboot of the Windows server and NetApp filer. This is disruptive, and could be a serious impediment to implementation for application users responsible for managing 24x7 applications. Perhaps SRM applications should be offered as network-based applications, so the service could be turned on at the port, and the associated resources discovered and reported on.

Pricing for Veritas StorageCentral

These are typical prices; volume discounts are also available.

Usability and interface
StorageCentral's user interface is built around MMC, which offers a consistent view when interacting with other Windows-based administrative applications. Managed objects appear on the left, and the details of those objects can be manipulated in the right pane. Depending on whether you use Active Directory to manage your resources, the managed objects pane will either outline the local computer and your Microsoft network with their associated subheadings (managed objects, policies and reports) or outline your organizational units being managed by AD. However, the manageability and navigation of resources are consistent regardless of the approach you choose.

Administrators also can use the StorageCentral Explorer snap-in tool to access and manage storage resources from anywhere using Internet Explorer 5.5 or later.

One of the problems associated with SRM solutions is that they need to deal directly with storage users to request that they do something about their space utilization. StorageCentral e-mails report directly to users asking them to review a list of files that have not been accessed for a long time.

With StorageCentral, users can delete dormant files directly from the e-mailed report. This is important because in order for SRM solutions to be successful, user involvement has to be straightforward, easy and not disruptive. Allowing users to remedy problems without many additional mouse clicks should improve the likelihood of effective user participation in resource management.

StorageCentral 5.2 comes bundled with predefined policies and alarms that make it easy to start using the product quickly. The predefined elements can be modified to suit specific processing needs. And administration is simplified because Windows and Ontap commands can be executed within StorageCentral.

The product isn't intended as a discovery tool to tell you what physical resources--arrays, tape libraries and so forth--you have in your storage environment. Rather, it determines the amount of disk usage that an individual server or application is using. It does this by interrogating the NTFS to obtain meta data regarding the configured volumes on the server.

StorageCentral allows you to set soft limits with "overdraft" protection in your policies. For example, you can define a user quota at 100MB and an additional 10MB of on-the-fly storage. If the overdraft storage is used, the user is notified with a report that says the quota was exceeded. StorageCentral also can be configured to allow all open files to be saved, even if the save would put the user over the preset quota. The user is notified of the violation, but isn't in jeopardy of losing data.

That's as far as StorageCentral goes with provisioning storage. I'd like to have seen more in the way of actually provisioning or extending volumes on-the-fly to satisfy user appetites. SRM solutions should be more than quota management; they should address all of the tasks associated with monitoring (discovery), managing (policies) and provisioning storage resources end-to-end, on an application basis. Some form of hierarchical storage management (HSM) also should be included to provision the correct type of storage.

StorageCentral filters files by extension or by signature content. Because of the latter, simply changing the extension of a file will not circumvent a policy. File groups--which can be seen as a text file with a pattern-matching list of absolute pathnames--are used to determine which files will be prevented from being saved on the managed node's disks.

Policies can also be applied on a server basis. For example, if you deployed a large number of servers, applying a predefined computer policy would result in the target servers' devices and folders inheriting the standardized management policy.

StorageCentral adds support for Unicode characters. Unicode provides a unique number for every character regardless of platform, program or language. Widespread adoption of Unicode will allow applications to be ported anywhere and across computing platforms without reengineering. It's important to note, however, that there may be some compatibility issues with earlier versions of StorageCentral consoles, agents and collectors. Check with Veritas to ensure compatibility.

StorageCentral's reporting is rich, allowing you to modify bundled reports, e-mail reports and have users act on violations directly from mailed reports. When you receive a report, you can further distill it by applying additional filters and sorting. This means that you don't have to generate as many reports to satisfy each application owner. For example, one predefined report displays a list of files not being backed up. Instead of producing a report for each application server that comes online, you can distribute a generic report and let users filter and sort to view only the server and files they're interested in.

Other reports--such as the Duplicate Files and Show MP3 Files reports--can help reclaim storage space if duplicate files or prohibited media files are being improperly stored on the server or network-attached storage (NAS) device.

Environment and performance
StorageCentral is ideally suited for large Windows-based server environments with standardized AD administration and an abundance of NetApp NAS filers. As the product is currently offered, these environments will yield the greatest ROI.

But this configuration is not representative of the majority of IT server environments. In most IT shops, the majority of SAN and NAS solutions are still servicing Unix servers. A Unix version of the product would likely boost its chances of acceptance.

StorageCentral scales at the domain level with collectors and remote agents for NetApp filers. Multiple collectors and NetApp remote agents can exist in a single domain, but they can't manage storage resources across domains because domain-level privileges are necessary for the installation of AD and NetApp editions of StorageCentral. This approach makes sense because most Windows-based security policies start at the domain level.

SNMP plays an important role when supporting NetApp filers. It is used to send management data between the filer and the StorageCentral remote agent configured in the same domain. Therefore, SNMP must be enabled on both the filer and the server hosting the remote agent. Network managers should be pleased that StorageCentral has its own registered object identifier for enhanced management in Hewlett-Packard's OpenView and other similar applications.

Performance scales well with the number of managed hosts because rather than touching every file on the managed host, agents scan the meta data in the NTFS master file table to derive statistical information. This also helps to expedite the creation of reports. A single collector agent can service large domains. Any scaling limitation is likely to arise from the fact that report generation is memory intensive, so a large number of managed nodes may require an increase in the memory on the collector.

I didn't find it necessary to use Veritas' support line during the course of testing. The product manuals, a best practices white paper and even a trial copy of the StorageCentral V5.2 software are all available as downloads from the Veritas Web site. I also took advantage of a live demonstration session that was being offered on a regular basis. The downloads and demonstration make it easy to test StorageCentral before considering a purchase.

Overall, StorageCentral is a good economic and administrative solution for large Windows-based environments that are standardized on AD and NetApp filers. It reaches into these entities and extends your management arm to eliminate waste on your SAN and NAS infrastructures. Veritas suggests that by using StorageCentral, as much as 30% of current storage can be reclaimed and procurement can be cut by up to 25%. Its simple design and interface let you locate and group storage resources, apply extensive corporate policies and then manage those policies through a solid set of reporting features.

Still, enterprise SRM solutions must include the entire enterprise and do more in the way of provisioning. Because StorageCentral currently only supports Windows environments and lacks provisioning, a large part of an enterprise's resource management problem is likely to continue, making it necessary to deploy another solution to address those issues.

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