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Enterprise data storage configuration tools: Trends and best practices

Data storage configuration tools are getting easier to use as vendors improve the built-in element managers of storage devices, their storage resource management software and other tools.

Here's the good news for enterprise storage pros: Data storage configuration no longer demands arduous manual labor and the meticulous maintenance of spreadsheets to track capacity usage for those willing to trust a growing list of available tools.

Storage configuration continues to get easier, as vendors simplify the graphical user interface (GUI) and the wizards of the built-in element or device managers that most IT organizations use for the initial storage provisioning of their storage arrays and switches.

Table of contents:

>>Some storage users still wary of automation
>>Classic storage resource management use case
>>Wide range of functions available in SRM tools
>>SRM as a service?
>>Headaches persist with SRM tools

Those who seek out the newest storage resource management (SRM) products will find several promising trends that may make the tools even more useful. Major vendors, for instance, have been trying wherever possible to eliminate the agents that can be burdensome for their customers to implement and maintain.

In addition, some storage vendors have been enhancing their software's ability to centrally configure, monitor and report. There has also been a push to add support for virtual server environments.

Some tools alert users of configuration changes that might violate best practices or an IT organization's policies, and some can even be set to automate storage allocation.

"We're trying to eliminate the need to configure. That's the ultimate," said Lee Johns, marketing director for unified storage at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., of his company's focus. "We're trying to make it easier to configure systems using standard interfaces, and we're trying to make it easier to configure storage via the application, with wizards."

HP's StorageWorks X1000 Automated Storage Manager software, for instance, is aimed at users with little or no experience carving out LUNs. The vendor's MSA2000 has a SAS connectivity option that removes the need for customers to buy switches. Its LeftHand arrays provide built-in management tools for thin provisioning, snapshots and replication. And HP's BladeSystem Matrix cloud infrastructure bundles servers, storage and networking, as well as orchestration software that can automate provisioning.


 SRM tools for virtual server environments: Storage resource management tools for virtual server environments can help with the configuration process, especially when features such as thin provisioning are used.


Some storage users still wary of automation

Ed Delgado, a storage architect at RiskMetrics Group Inc., is among those storage pros wary of configuration automation. He doesn't want to work through a storage resource management tool's central console for fear that he might mistakenly provision an array in one of the company's six locations while intending to work on another.

"I prefer, when I'm doing configuration, to be on the array that I'm working on," he said.

Delgado also said he can't justify the considerable expense of EMC Corp.'s Control Center SRM software, even if some features might be useful, since the staff can configure its 10 Clariions with the built-in Navisphere element manager.

"We already have a reporting utility that centralizes information for us, so for me, the configuration part does not have to be centralized," Delgado said.

Classic storage resource management use case

Still, the larger the storage environment, the more essential an SRM tool can be. A major insurance company in Hartford, Conn., for instance, has 30 IBM DS8000 series systems, 25 Hitachi Data Systems arrays and eight NetApp Inc. NAS devices. Until a year ago, three staffers tracked capacity usage on spreadsheets.

"The unfortunate thing is they were totally manual processes to the point that, even where you had scripts to collect the data, you had to input it into the spreadsheets manually," said Jim Jancewicz, a storage specialist at the insurance company.

Although cumbersome, the manual processes were within the realm of possibility when the company had less than 200 TB of storage. Now that the insurer has 2.5 PB of storage, its IBM Tivoli Storage Productivity Center (TPC) is critical in providing the performance and capacity details necessary to inform the configuration decisions. When storage staffers started testing TPC four years ago, they discovered a 200 TB differential between what they had and what they thought they had, Jancewicz said.

When selecting a storage resource management tool, the team followed Gartner Inc.'s advice to choose the vendor representing the majority of the company's storage systems. At the time of purchase, between 60% and 70% of the insurance firm's storage resided on IBM arrays, making TPC the logical choice, Jancewicz said.

Jancewicz said he deemed Tivoli Storage Productivity Center to be stable enough for configuration purposes approximately 18 months ago and finally eliminated the spreadsheets last year.

"For a lot of the systems administrators, it's a very big hurdle to get over. They like to have that hands-on feel, and when you're turning it over to a tool, there's a trust factor," Jancewicz said. "But it is well worth the effort."

Wide range of functions available in SRM tools

"SRM is still very much in the underachieving category," said Greg Schulz, founder and analyst at StorageIO Group, noting that most users don't employ their full capabilities.

IT organizations will find a range of SRM tools, modules and add-ons available, some from vendors that produce storage arrays and others from vendors that don't, such as CA with its Storage Resource Manager, and Symantec Corp. with its Veritas CommandCentral Storage. Other prominent SRM tools include EMC's ControlCenter, HP's Storage Essentials, Hitachi Data Systems' Storage Command Suite, and NetApp's Storage Suite (for its own environment) and SANscreen (for heterogeneous environments).

To varying degrees, depending on the vendor and tool, the SRM software allows for the initial provisioning and configuration of storage from a central console. Some can also be set to automate the process. They typically work by either sending commands to the element manager, talking to APIs or CLIs, or using the Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S) put out by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA).

"The tradeoff that you end up making," said Ron Riffe, manager of storage software product management for IBM Tivoli, "is that TPC and its competitors in the SRM space don't attempt to enable configuration of 100% of everything that every device in the SAN can do."

For more specialized configuration, users can go to the element managers of the individual storage devices, either through the storage resource management tool's central console or through the device itself. But the central console isn't an option in every case; EMC's and NetApp's SRM tools monitor and report on heterogeneous systems, but provisioning generally is reserved for their own storage products (although EMC's ControlCenter can discover a Hitachi LUN and map it to a host).

"Our philosophy is that nobody's ever going to be better at actively configuring a device than the manufacturer of that device," said Wally MacDermid, director of solutions marketing for storage management software at NetApp.


Editor's Podcast: Looking for more information on configuration management tools? Carol Sliwa sat with Bob Laliberte of the Enterprise Strategy Group to discuss how most organizations configure storage today, the most common trends in configuration tools and what end users have to say about agentless technology.

SRM as a service?

Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said he's starting to see "SRM-as-a-Service" offerings gaining traction among small- and midsized businesses (SMBs) that want insight into their storage environments. He cited vendors such as Datalink Corp., GlassHouse Technologies Inc., SANpulse Technologies Inc. and Storage Fusion Ltd. (UK).

Meanwhile, the major SRM vendors have been working to offer greater end-to-end management and visibility. EMC, for instance, made a series of acquisitions to extend its reach well beyond the storage realm, including root cause analysis and impact assessment across the network and, later, to physical and virtual server domains. And most recently, EMC ventured into near real-time change tracking, configuration management and path validation with the release of its Storage Configuration Advisor appliance. The product can alert users when it detects potential violations of policies and best practices.

"It's not uncommon for EMC customers to have 1,000 or 2,000 servers in their environments attached to more than one array," said Kevin Gray, a consulting product marketing manager for storage products at EMC. "I had one customer that told me every time he went to do a non-disruptive upgrade of his Clariion microcode, one or two servers would fall offline. It wasn't because he didn't understand how it was supposed to be configured. What it really came down to was they didn't have the bandwidth to look at the element manager a thousand times over, and say 'Is the HBA the right model number? Is the microcode the right model number? Does it align with the right version of the operation system?'"

Gray said EMC is building a Configuration Analytics Manager that will combine input from Storage Configuration Advisor, as well as server and network configuration managers, "so you get a complete picture across your infrastructure in terms of how well you're doing at managing change."

One of its chief competitors, NetApp's SANscreen, takes a similar approach and adds more than 50 data sources to gather information from devices. Acquired from Onaro Inc. in 2008, NetApp's SANscreen has broadened to include performance analysis, capacity management and virtualization management. The product boasts some exceptionally large customers, including one that cancelled the roll-out of a legacy SRM product after spending three years and approximately $3.5 million trying to deploy the tool's agents, according to NetApp's MacDermid.

Headaches persist with SRM tools

Although the shift toward agentless technology could mean an end to such headaches, the products carry inherent shortcomings and won't make sense for every IT organization.

"If you want a tool that can do more things more deeply with more products, then you may be willing to have the agents or a tool that has much deeper API integration," said Steven Scully, an analyst at IDC. But, he added, vendors that rely on APIs may support only a limited number of storage systems because of the extra work they need to do.

Some tools take a hybrid approach. IBM TPC, for instance, doesn't use agents for the arrays, switches, tape libraries or virtualization software so long as the devices support SMI-S, but it does use agents to monitor the HBAs, file system or anything on the physical server, according to Riffe.

SRM tools are increasingly picking up enhanced configuration and change management capabilities. Some take snapshots of the storage environment so the IT organization can compare a previously saved stable configuration to a problematic one to pinpoint the root cause. Others have moved toward near real-time monitoring and alerts.

Symantec, for instance, in December released an agentless Veritas CommandCentral Storage Change Manager to monitor in near real-time if policies that customers apply to storage configuration are being kept. In April, the company also made available a Veritas CommandCentral Disaster Recovery Advisor that can compare the primary data center to the secondary, or failover, data center to help users flag configuration drift and ensure their failover will be successful.

"What they're all trying to do is take software to make a really, really complex environment simple to manage," Enterprise Strategy Group's Laliberte said. "We're still years away from seeing that fully integrated stack that's all agentless and easy to deploy and manage. But certainly it's on the way."


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