Vendors simplify storage management

The explosive growth of networked computers at government agencies and their increasing support of online applications is driving the value and volume of stored data to new heights. Unfortunately, agency information technology managers don't often have the luxury of adding staff to keep pace.

That's why more and more of them are turning to storage management software, which can help ensure that data and applications are available when needed and automate many time-consuming tasks. The toughest storage management challenges arise not only from the volume of data but also from the complexity of the storage infrastructure.

In the past few years, storage management has evolved from a focus on tape-based backup to automated storage applications running via a local-area network to the emergence of entire networks dedicated to storage. Those storage-area networks (SANs) are separate from agency LAN or wide-area networks and are used exclusively for moving data efficiently among servers and storage devices.

SANs can be complex, consisting of hundreds of interconnects, hubs and other devices. Administrators in charge of such environments often have had to manage each device with separate tools, but storage vendors are trying to make the job easier.

With its Continuum family of products, for example, Legato Systems Inc. has attacked network storage management on multiple fronts. At a basic level, the company offers several backup and recovery tools.For agencies with high data and application availability needs, Legato also offers fault resilience, or server-free backup for users with a SAN. The product automatically detects what needs to be backed up, makes a snapshot view of that data and moves it to the SAN without tying up the server.

Finally, Legato offers products designed to ensure continuous operations, such as those designed to enable administrators to monitor clusters of servers from a single console and move applications from one server to another if a problem occurs.

The Census Bureau is using Legato's server clustering technology to protect some of its most precious data—the information collected via phone by Census surveyors. Census has five pairs of servers to store this data: one per pair is designated as a primary server, and the other one is designated as a standby server."As users connect to the primary server, any changes that are made...are automatically changed on the standby server," said Leonidas Velasquez, a computer specialist at Census.If at any time the primary server goes down, the standby server is designed to detect the problem and reboot and assume the identity of the primary server, Velasquez said."For us, it is very critical to keep this information up-to-date or to be able to recover in a short period of time if there is any problem," Velasquez said.John Webster, analyst and IT adviser at Illuminata Inc., noted that being able to recover data and continue operations is key to network storage. "If the backup devices aren't reliable, then they can't restore," Webster said. "If you're using the same tapes over and over again, you're at risk."Webster said some of the most important features of network storage management solutions are the ability to automatically monitor changes in network components and apply policy-based responses to predefined events. For example, the application might page an administrator when a server has been down for 10 seconds."These things can get very complicated," Webster said. "Any manageability [enhancements] will capture the interest of users."Exabyte Corp. offers a browser-based package called NetStorm Resource Manager, which is designed to provide remote management of all networking devices related to the storage infrastructure. Most traditional backup architectures do not provide enough useful information about the devices contained on the network, according to Elisa Wade, NetStorm programming manager. For example, solutions touted as "storage management" or "network management" may not include primary (disk) and secondary (tape) data storage, she said.

"As networks increase in size and complexity, data availability relies not only on disks and tape backup but on being able to centrally manage them and the hubs and switches...the network plumbing, making that data available across the network," Wade said.

NetStorm continually polls network devices and collects information about configuration, status and error reporting. It can be programmed to alert an administrator with an e-mail or a page when a problem occurs.

EMC Corp.'s customers are demanding network storage management solutions that will address IT worker productivity issues as the number of Internet applications grows and with disk capacity doubling every 12 to 18 months, said Paul Marcucci, the vendor's product marketing manager."People today are talking about managing terabytes of information," Marcucci said. "In the future, they will need to manage hundreds of terabytes. They need products that will increase the productivity of their people."The company's ControlCenter family of applications is designed to provide via a browser-based console extensive user management across EMC enterprise storage networks with monitoring, configuration control and tuning."[ControlCenter] gives our customers the capability to look at storage from a host perspective," Marcucci said. "They spend a lot of time today in gathering information...and trying to understand their storage architecture."ControlCenter can automatically tune disk drives by moving data from a disk with a lot of activity to a disk with less activity. It functions in the background and alleviates the need for manual tuning, which many administrators often perform today, Marcucci said.

In addition to offering backup and recovery solutions, Veritas Software Corp. offers "virtualized network storage" software designed to perform many tasks without downtime. For example, a manager can add new storage or change storage configurations to improve availability. Using this software, an application's logic volume can physically exist in one of many peripheral classes or multiple peripherals.

"It's kind of virtualized storage into more logical disks," said Robin Purohit, Veritas' director of SAN product management. "The applications can continue to run because it's using a virtual disk instead of a physical disk. By allowing you to do all this tuning and configuring online, you don't have to take applications down."

Network storage is becoming even more important to agencies as they struggle with electronic records management requirements, Purohit said. "They are always accumulating more and more data," he said. "They have to make sure they can always make that data recoverable."

Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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