Software aims to smarten storage

Storage management wares automate SANs but face integration challenges

Intelligent storage is something of an oxymoron. Vendors have introduced various technologies to inject smarts into the increasingly complex body of storage technology. Industry observers say those efforts have fallen short of the mark. Storage-area networks (SANs), for example, were expected to make storage easier and cheaper to manage. But SANs, for all their promise, in some cases actually complicated matters. An intelligence gap persisted.

The latest generation of storage resource management (SRM) technology may yet supply the missing gray matter. SRM has been around for a while, largely as a capacity management and reporting tool. The newer arrivals, however, let organizations automate their business policies in a storage context. If a federal agency wants to wipe out MP3s or archive seldom-used files, SRM can make that happen without manual intervention. Automated provisioning, or allocating new storage space for an application, is another emerging SRM feature and one seen as especially critical in SAN environments.

Greg van Hise, a product manager for IBM Corp. Tivoli, views SRM "as the brains of the operation."

Clever it may be, but SRM has seen only sporadic use in the federal sector.

Managers evaluating management software find the task challenging, given the sheer number of products and their different capabilities. Depending on which industry analyst one consults, the number of SRM vendors ranges from 30 to more than 200.

"There are so many different vendors right now," said Lawrence Borkowski, acting information systems chief in the Army National Guard's P3 division.

Shifting Emphasis

Early iterations of SRM software generally offered a limited range of features and supported specific platforms such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. Such products generally would track storage use for each server and pull together data from multiple servers to identify trends.

But management technology is growing beyond passive monitoring and reporting. SRM's thrust is to collect storage information and act upon it. Automation has become vendors' rallying cry. Products with varying automation levels now are available for direct-attached storage, network-attached storage and SANs.

Some products automatically move data to the most appropriate storage device based on an organization's business policy. For example, a federal agency may want to archive files that have not been accessed in more than a year. Computer Associates International Inc.'s BrightStor Storage Resource Manager, CreekPath Systems Inc.'s AIM Suite, Softek Storage Manager by Fujitsu Softek (Fujitsu Software Technology Corp.), TeraCloud Corp.'s SpaceNet and IBM Tivoli's Storage Resource Manager are among the products that provide policy-driven automation.

Dynamic provisioning is another example of automation. It puts SRM's utilization data to use, letting applications allocate more storage on the fly. EMC Corp.'s ControlCenter SRM suite has offered automated provisioning since November 2002. IBM Tivoli added automated provisioning to its Tivoli Storage Resource Manager April 25, and Fujitsu Softek plans to ship its Softek Provisioner in the next few months.

Improved storage utilization has been a frequently cited benefit of SRM. But automation has the potential to take SRM in a new direction: making SANs smarter.

Theresa O'Neil, director of storage strategy at IBM Tivoli, said people who put a SAN into production encounter numerous manual tasks, noting that provisioning storage may require 20 steps. "They want a way to reduce the work and the risk of human error," she said. Automated provisioning, she added, "will open up a new segment of the market interested in SRM."

Information technology managers say SRM is a natural fit for SANs. "You can't have a SAN without the software," said the Army's Borkowski. When the Army National Guard last year rolled out a series of small SANs, storage management software accompanied the hardware to 54 sites. The agency, facing human resource constraints, relies on software to manage disk space and handle other administrative chores. "As my people retire or move on, we're depending on hardware and software to do the job," he said.

SRM also ties into SAN virtualization, an approach that creates a single pool of logical storage from different physical devices. Virtualization relies on software and specialized appliances to mask the differences among storage subsystems. Storage from the common pool may be assigned to servers as needed.

That's where SRM and automated provisioning come in. Vendors believe those wares will be used to serve up virtualized storage.

Indeed, some automated provisioning products will only operate in a virtualized environment. Fujitsu Softek's Storage Provisioner 2.1, for example, requires virtualized, SAN-attached storage. The company says a subsequent release will support automated provisioning directly from storage arrays in any environment. Storage Provisioner is based on DataCore Software Corp.'s virtualization engine.

EMC's Automated Resource Manager, the ControlCenter automated provisioning component, operates in SAN-attached environments, said Katie Curtin-Mestre, product marketing manager at ControlCenter. As for virtualization, Automated Resource Manager works with customers' existing volume manager software.

The task of integrating SRM — whether it is with operating environments, storage platforms or virtualization layers — remains a challenge.

SRM's basic capacity management and reporting aspect seems to be making the most progress in integration. SRM products typically obtain storage metadata via software agents installed on application servers. Current products' agents can run on a range of servers.

But casting such a wide net places a burden on vendors, said Augie Gonzalez, director of product marketing at DataCore. Vendors "have to do ports for a variety of operating systems," he said. "It is not profitable to start porting instead of innovating."

The emerging tools tend to have a more limited multivendor reach. Bob Bingham, TeraCloud's chief marketing officer, said automated provisioning typically is "addressed by the large hardware providers for their own proprietary hardware in the form of device utilities."

IBM Tivoli will focus on IBM's Enterprise Storage Server in its initial release of automated provisioning. EMC's Automated Resource Manager, meanwhile, works with EMC's Clariion and Symmetrix arrays and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s StorageWorks products.

As vendors sort out linkages, the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is trying to smooth the path of SAN management. It announced last year the Bluefin SAN management interface draft specification and then agreed to refine Bluefin into the Storage Management Interface Specification (SMI-S). SNIA earlier this month released SMI-S Version 1.0 for public comment.

For customers, a common SAN interface would simplify management technology. Customers presumably could wield a single tool set to manage mixed storage, provided each device was compliant with SMI-S.

Vendors would benefit as well. Jim Lee, Princeton Softech Inc.'s vice president of product marketing, is interested in linking his company's archiving products to other storage management tools. "Standards could help," he said, "but only if vendors begin delivering on the standards."

SNIA's goal is to have all new storage networking products support SMI-S in 2005. But there could be some near-term impact as SMI-S supporters begin making moves. Backers include EMC, IBM, and Veritas Software Corp.

EMC, for example, plans to implement SMI-S by the end of this year. Specifically, EMC will support SMI-S and the Common Information Model (an underlying specification) in hardware and software, according to Barry Ader, director of open-software marketing at EMC.

Gerard Svartz, product marketing manager at Fujitsu Softek, believes the market will see more manageability via SMI-S during the second half of this year as vendors build support into products.

That would be welcome news for customers struggling to make their storage networks smarter.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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