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Reporter's Notebook: Configuring an EMC AX100

If an intern can do it, so can I. Right? I got my chance, plus a lot more, during a recent trip to EMC's campus in Hopkinton, Mass.

A recent magazine advertisement by EMC shows a young intern sitting on the floor plugging in a new AX100, EMC's smallest Clariion array aimed at small and medium-sized businesses. Aside from looking pretty cute, he appears to know what he's doing.

Well, if he can do it, the advertisement suggests, anyone can. This is, of course, far from true with most SAN products, which require a degree in engineering, considerable specialized training and the patience of a saint, before operating. EMC claims the fastest record for installing the AX100 is 35 minutes.

During a trip up the road to the company's Hopkinton, Mass., campus this week, I got my chance to put this to the test. As my editor and I drove past one brick building after another on South Street looking for our meeting, I wondered whether we should alert someone of our whereabouts. Having written some less than savory stories about the company's products, I am not what you would call their favorite reporter... But to the company's credit, EMC rolled out the red carpet and took great care of us.

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After interviews with Mark Lewis, executive vice president of EMC's Software Group, Tom Heiser, general manager of the Centera group, and his partner in crime, Roy Sanford, vice president of marketing for Centera, we got to the interesting stuff…

…My chance to play with a storage array. I should mention that I am not technical. When the toaster breaks I throw it out and buy another one. If my car is making strange noises I immediately take it to a mechanic. You get the picture.

An EMC engineer handed me a knife like a surgeon in an operating room to open up the patient -- a not-so-brand-new AX100, retaped up in a box from the previous installation. Inside, on top of the product, was a large, laminated sheet called the "Getting Started Guide." If you've ever bought home furnishings from Ikea, you'll know what I'm talking about. Ten steps, with pictures to guide you through. No problem!

One thing to remember. Read these instructions carefully, however painful it might be. I glossed over them and missed a couple of things. I also did some unnecessary stuff that would probably be obvious to most IT people. First, there's no need to put the rack together if you're only configuring one box, and similarly, there's no need to install PowerPath, EMC's load-balancing software, if you're only using one system.

The host bus adaptor (HBA) and HBA driver were already installed in a Dell server running Windows Server 2003. This probably shaves a week off the installation time! (Well, not quite but you know what I mean). Next, you plug in the AS100 power cord, which has a neat safety catch, and the network cables (also already set up by EMC), and the box automatically turns itself on. The array has two copper ports to connect to the LAN and four fiber ports for redundant connectivity of its two processors to either host computers or to the Fibre Channel network.

The package includes a simplified version of Navisphere, EMC's management application, and some utilities that use auto-discovery to automate the most critical configuration steps, such as setting IP addresses and registering your servers with the storage array.

Once the network is up and running, you can run Navisphere Express and begin configuring storage. EMC was ready to stop at this point, but I was dying to actually do the real thing and assign some storage to a file. Things got a little bit tricky at this point as Windows didn't recognize the AX100 and I had to de-install PowerPath to make it work. This could have been peculiar to my setup and of course, was all Microsoft's fault, according to EMC.

But still, in under an hour I had created a logical unit number called virtual disks in Navisphere Express for simplicity and created a volume or disk pool. I created a word document, saved my file to this pool and then retrieved it.

Not bad for a first go. And more importantly, it didn't put me off, which is critical for new users. Now all I would have to do is come up with $5,000 to pay for it. Following the AX100 install we took a quick tour of the customer solutions center where EMC wines and dines prospective buyers and then headed home. Thanks guys! If any field engineering or installation jobs come up, you know who to call.

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