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Is storage automation a bust?

Some storage managers are resisting automation altogether, while others are taking it slowly.

This article first appeared in "Storage" magazine in the September issue. For more articles of this type, please visit

What you will learn from this tip: Why some storage managers are resisting storage automation, and why others are taking it slowly.

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 multi-vendor 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, Colo. 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.

Read the rest of this article in Storage magazine.

For more information:

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Tip: Top 10 tips on storage management

Tip: The best practices of storage management

About the author: Alan Radding is a freelance writer located in Boston.

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