Try before you buy storage hardware

Nearly all of the major storage vendors will let you take their hardware for a test-drive. Here's why that's a great idea

What you choose for your primary storage may be the most important purchasing decision you ever make. That storage will form the bedrock -- or the shaky ground -- upon which the rest of your server and application environment will be built. Primary storage is a major capital investment and frequently has a much longer lifecycle than most infrastructure components, often remaining in production for five years or more.

It's hard to know what you're getting without rolling up your sleeves and putting your hands on it. I highly recommend doing just that. Fortunately, almost all of the major storage players offer evaluation units you can test firsthand. At the very least, get one of each of the top options you're considering.

Get familiar with the ins and outs of the management interface, learn how easy (or difficult) the device is to configure, and if practical, do a head-to-head performance test. The evaluation process often brings up questions you would never have thought to ask potential storage suitors without seeing the product and making it work on your own.

Many times, potential storage customers will visit an existing customer instead of doing a full evaluation, but this is only part of the story. Yes, you typically learn some valuable lessons, but you won't find out how the storage will work in your environment.

Storage product lines tend to distinguish themselves from each other in their higher-end features: snapshots, replication, and in some cases, de-duplication. Run these features through their paces and you can get a much better feel for the functionality and determine what you really need.

Take the application-aware snapshot functionality supported by many SAN platforms. This kind of integration allows a server running a storage-intensive application such as Microsoft SQL Server to be aware of the fact that a SAN snapshot is being taken (or even request that it be taken) -- thus ensuring that data retained by snapshot is completely consistent and ready to be restored into production at a moment's notice. This functionality can be leveraged further by backup software packages, which then use that consistent database snapshot to back up directly from the SAN without impacting the production server at all.

But these kinds of features can be relatively complex. If they're really important to you -- say, one of your goals of implementing shared storage is to improve database performance and minimize backup windows -- you need to be sure that the options you're looking at will fit in with the exact circumstances of your network. For example, some integration software may work directly with the backup software you already have, while other packages could require automation scripting.

Knowing these details ahead of your decision to purchase may alert you to costs you hadn't considered. No matter what your needs, try before you buy. Only then can you really know what questions to ask and fully understand your options.

This article, "Try before you buy storage hardware," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog and follow the latest developments in storage at InfoWorld.com.

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