Making sense of storage management

In a world where compliance encourages companies to save everything, emerging standards promise flexibility and control for heterogeneous storage environments

Storage spawns where it’s needed, from sensibly architected SANs serving transaction-intensive systems to storage appliances bought impulsively to fill a departmental need. That leaves IT to manage many islands of storage strewn across the enterprise at a time when the need for centralized storage management has never been greater. Compliance requirements, multimedia-rich applications, and a proliferation of databases are pushing IT departments to increase the size and complexity of storage networks across the enterprise.

“I tell our senior management that we grow our storage at a rate of 40 to 50 percent per year and they can’t believe it,” says Lev Katz, datacenter operations manager for EMC storage customer MidAmerica Bank. “But then, if our business grew 30 percent last year, it makes sense for storage to grow the same amount, if not more. You have that many more people, you have that much more e-mail, you have that many more files.”

Point solutions and hands-on labor are no longer enough. To help IT wrap its arms around the storage problem, major storage vendors such as AppIQ, Computer Associates, CreekPath, Crosswalk, EMC, HP, IBM, Softek, and Veritas offer a range of storage-management software that enables administrators to find and manage all the components of a storage area network.

“Automated storage management is an easy means to create operational efficiencies and help reduce IT costs,” says Matt Fairbanks, director of product marketing for storage management leader Veritas. ‘The IT workforce is more productive and they are able to deploy more assets, increase storage capacity, and reduce complexity.” (See our Test Center Reviews of Veritas CommandCentral and Veritas Backup Exec Suite.)

Each vendor’s applications vary in the number and type of SAN devices they support. If you’re lucky enough to have standardized on a single server platform and single storage vendor on a single Fibre Channel SAN, your environment will be relatively easy to install and manage. Distributed, heterogeneous, wide-area SANs, however, can be tough.

“As coincidence would have it, 90 percent of our storage is EMC-provided,” says Scott Roemmele, SAN engineer team leader for online mortgage lender Quicken Loans. “But we do design most of our platforms to be open vendor — they don’t really have to be used with one particular thing. EMC Control Center actually has a lot of open-endedness to where it will actually recognize other vendors' storage as well.”

A Standard Solution

Currently, most would-be SAN and storage-management applications have to rely on published APIs from other vendors to enable communication. This is changing, however, with the widespread adoption of SMI-S (Storage Management Interface Specification) 1.0 for communication between SAN devices. So far, most management applications and the SMI-S specification only cover management of SAN hardware. Managing data is trickier, particularly ILM (information lifecycle management), which involves controlling data retention and the migration of data between storage tiers. InfoWorld explored ILM in “Taking charge of the enterprise information lifecycle.

Although most vendors make a considerable effort to develop or license the technology for communicating with other vendors’ products, the wide variety of products on the market, the speed at which these new products are appearing, and the continuous development of new technologies make it extremely difficult for any platform to support everything. On the other hand, customers are telling the vendors in no uncertain terms that they won’t buy products that can’t manage a heterogeneous environment.

“Many customers today are already doing some form of storage management and virtualization,” says Veritas’s Fairbanks. “In talking to our customers about the future, we’ve found that they are looking for robust storage management and virtualization features that enable common storage IT practices across multiple OS and hardware storage platforms.”

That’s why virtually every vendor in the storage industry, major and minor, is a member of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), which has been working to improve interoperability by drafting the SMI-S specification (see “Toward a Universal Standard”). The first version covers communications between devices on a SAN, as well as communications between a management application and the devices. Forthcoming versions already in development address topics beyond the SAN hardware itself, including management of data services such as backups, replication, snapshots, and ILM.

SMI-S is not a device specification. Instead, it covers how devices and applications on the SAN communicate with each other. It uses two existing technologies: CIM (the Common Information Model) -- originally developed for LAN technologies — and XML to pass data between devices. Because SMI-S is extensible and continues to evolve, it will be able to address future needs of SAN management as necessary.

Struggling With SMI-S
“SMI-S won’t solve storage-management problems overnight,” says Jeff Hornung, vice president of the gateway business unit at Network Appliance, “but it should eventually allow a broad scope of storage management from a single platform. The more things that are adopted into the SMI-S spec, the better things will get for everyone -- including us -- though we may have to work harder to innovate.”

Tom Rose, vice president of marketing for AppIQ, agrees. “SMI-S is like SNMP in the early LAN days -- it will take time to get everyone on board, but we’re seeing more companies get on board all the time. SMI-S has won in the sense that 100 percent of vendors have committed to it, though less than 70 percent are currently supporting it.”

It will be a while before SMI-S lives up to its potential. As Jack McDonnell, chairman and CEO of Crosswalk says, “The lack of maturity of the SMI-S spec and the dearth of available SMI-S capability to date makes integrating with most applications a challenge, due to the necessity to use published APIs to communicate with each different application.”

McDonnell says that so far, even when SMI-S is supported by a device or application, all the needed information isn’t necessarily available. Not every field may be fully populated, or data may be in the wrong fields. He estimates that currently half of the information needed to successfully manage storage devices comes from SMI-S and CIM. The rest of the data is gathered using device and application APIs or SNMP.

The immaturity of the specifications is enough to keep SMI-S off the radar for many customers. “I wouldn't say [SMI-S] is one of our top priorities to have,” says Quicken Loans’ Roemmele. “We really just haven't found a specific need where it has to be at this point.”

To help fill the void for customers who do require SMI-S support, however, AppIQ has developed “wrapper” technology, which translates the APIs for storage hardware from many vendors into SMI-S.

Crosswalk’s McDonnell is optimistic that things will continue to improve, as long as end-users and resellers push for support of the SMI-S specification. “There’s no excuse for vendors with new storage products to create proprietary management interfaces,” he says. “They should support CIM and SMI-S.”

Plan of Attack
Of course, organizations are already taking advantage of the inventory and management capabilities in existing SAN management tools. Just having a clear picture of where your storage is and how much of it is being utilized can produce significant benefits (see “Creating Order From Chaos).

“It's really geared toward having information at hand as quick as possible, without having to make an excuse -- that we've got to get it from tape, or we have a down drive on one system and we have to get information restored from tape, or anything like that,” says Quicken Loans’ Roemmele.

At the moment, available management platforms allow admins to perform basic management of a fairly wide variety of SAN hardware. Will it be possible one day to manage data services such as replication, virtualization, and ILM, as well? As long as everyone in the industry continues to support SMI-S and implement the newer versions of the specification as they are ratified, the answer should be yes.

For now, managing a SAN is a matter of matching the components you have with the components that the management platforms support, adding in point solutions where necessary, and working to integrate the whole. More ambitious capabilities, such as ILM, will continue to be difficult to implement until the SMI-S 1.2 spec is ratified and integrated into management platforms -- probably in two or three years. When that happens, getting a clear picture of a heterogeneous data network should be a much simpler matter.

Until then, you’ll see a lot of parallel development from all vendors, with storage hardware and applications based on proprietary management protocols but including hooks for SMI-S support. For the long term, increased standardization will simplify integration, which in turn should drive down prices for management components.

As storage components become increasingly standardized, you might expect industry consolidation to follow -- but don’t count on it. In a market that offers commonplace, widely understood APIs, even small companies will be able to produce innovative storage products that easily integrate into the overall data-storage network. If most applications are able to pass data back and forth, such environments will be much easier to maintain. 

One consistent theme you’ll hear from storage vendors is that they support interoperability standards such as SMI-S because their customers are demanding it. As long as that demand continues, the vendors will continue to move toward a truly interoperable SAN environment.

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