Peering into the Big Blue haze

IBM’s On-Demand storage initiative poses a challenge to Microsoft DPM

As Lenovo completes its acquisition of IBM’s PC division, I’m set to squirt a few more tears for lost future generations of ThinkPad excellence. Rumor has it, however, that there’s still at least one generation of Big Blue-manufactured Thinkies on the way, and among these we may even find a tablet. Yowza!

Although I’m celebrating a new litter of Thinkies, I’m also calling IBM reppers about my utility computing feature and getting so much haze and smoke, you’d think I was bumming around a Grateful Dead concert. On-Demand is definitely Big Blue’s marketing darling, but it’s become so infested with, well, marketers that even those in charge have a difficult time explaining just what the hell it is. Where’s the beef?

Turns out you’ve got to go hunting for it yourself. Big Blue is Big Blue, and if there’s one place that’s never been hampered by unnecessary haze, it’s IBM’s product development centers. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the company’s latest moves looks sure to vex the good folks in Redmond: It seems IBM and NetAppliance have formed an alliance to co-market NetApp storage appliances with an IBM Tivoli Storage Manager  front end. No, this isn’t directly related to On-Demand, but then again, everything under the IBM umbrella is related to On-Demand in one way or another.

But if you weed through the On-Demand marketing hype and concentrate simply on storage functionality, then this Tivoli-NetApp alliance is a pretty sweet deal. Set up that appliance next to the first rev of Windows DPM (Data Protection Manager), and DPM gets two black eyes and a bloody nose. DPM might have had an advantage with its deep integration with Windows, but so far it’s really still just a surface application. All we’ve really got for integration is Active Directory and a supposed MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) management pack. My last look at Tivoli Storage Manager (in Version 5.2, I believe) was a little light on its list of supported operating platforms, but it was still more than just Windows -- although I’m still surprised that it doesn’t support the Red-Hat-wearing penguin.

Other than that, Tivoli and DPM are pretty similar, with perhaps one important exception: Tivoli implements a true HSM (hierarchical storage management) system, with support for tiered backups going from disk to disk, to tape, or to optical and anywhere in between. That means faster recovery time from a disk-based solution -- in this case presumably a NetApp product. DPM has the same functionality but can’t go all the way to tape. It’s disk-only, and that’s that; tape is for some other application, such as Veritas at the tail end. What DPM can give you that Tivoli can’t, however, is superior protection for your Windows servers using the snapshot feature, which enables a DPM server to perform what amounts to time-based backups of critical files and volumes. That’s tied closely to Windows, so Tivoli will probably get close to this kind of performance, but not quite the same performance.

However, Tivoli has specific open-file support for a number of applications, including SQL Server and Exchange, but also Oracle, DB2, Lotus Notes, and SAP for those who don’t buy all their software from the state of Washington. DPM covers any file or volume sitting on a Windows server, but as of yet it doesn’t support open-file backups for specific applications. Microsoft seems to have that functionality in mind for the near future -- although, much like my prom date, it won’t commit to it. But even if those features should see the light of day, I’ll bet that same prom date that the company will service Microsoft products only, leaving third-party applications to those same vendors via some kind of SDK.

DPM is also supposed to be cost-effective, but Redmond is still quite a ways from announcing a formal pricing structure. Judging from Microsoft’s marketing stance, DPM is aimed at the midtier market, so I’m looking for something at about $500 per server -- but I’ll probably wind up pitching a fit when Microsoft prices it at two or three times that number. Of course, Tivoli runs slightly more than $10,000, and that gets bulked up quite a bit more by the cost of the NetApp infrastructure. But even for midsize businesses, it’s worth the cost to have a storage platform that supports heterogeneous OSes. Now I’m implementing a solution on top of my other solutions instead of re-architecting something that works so it can include DPM.

I’m not complaining about On-Demand -- yet. It’s an exciting concept, but certainly one molded in quick reaction to a market shift rather than one backed by any specific technology play. But as long as IBM keeps delivering solid enterprise IT infrastructure, such as Tivoli, underneath the marketing fog, I’m a happy camper. It may cost more than anything coming out of the Northwest, but at least you know it’s there if you need it. I just wish IBM had a Haze Free button on its Web site.