How to keep your sanity with SAN management

Despite the promise of easier management that storage area networks are offering data-flooded enterprises, many companies are taking a cautious approach to deploying the emerging technology.

According to a recent study by Illuminata, a storage analysis firm in Nashua, N.H., although a plethora of SAN management tools exist on the market, none perform a fraction of what they should. The study, entitled The Levels of SAN Management, explained that while the majority of SAN management tools do a reasonable job of discovering and communicating with devices across the SAN fabric, when it comes to automation of processes, interoperability issues between vendors can be held to blame.

Illuminata broke SAN management down into three phases in an effort to explain what is lacking from vendors. In its first phase, SAN management software tools, including Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView Storage Area Manager, discovered and monitored components within the SAN. And according to David Freund, Illuminata analyst, this is where functionality currently sits.

“Right now, most of the SAN management products end up communicating with the various devices almost exclusively through proprietary vendor-specific application program interfaces,” Freund explained. “That is great when you are only dealing with a few vendors on your SAN. But, going forward, the nirvana of the SAN is this plug-and-play world where I can just add storage as necessary and have it play nice with everything else in the infrastructure.”

While Freund admitted it is a rather utopian ideal, he added that within Phases Two and Three, SAN management will take on a very different approach. Within Phase Two, SAN management software must have the capability to map complex topologies and address business needs, not just technical requirements, he said. Phase Two management applications also “must ensure that proper security within the SAN is maintained, that service level agreements (SLAs) are consistently met, and must monitor all other performance metrics.”

Once the tools are capable of handling these requirements, Freund said Phase Three management demands that software understands where copies of the data in a SAN reside, and focuses on the lifecycle of the data from its inception to its deletion.

But, according to Freund, the bad news for customers is that no software vendor can offer a Phase Three management solution because it requires that vendors cooperate on interoperability initiatives.

One such initiative is the much-talked-about Bluefin standard, the project name for a vendor-neutral API for device discovery, monitoring and management on a SAN. The Bluefin specification was developed by a group of storage vendors, including Network Appliance, and has been adopted by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) for further development. The Bluefin specification uses an object-oriented interface to link distributed management applications (clients) with device management support (agents). By providing verifiable interoperability standards, Bluefin removes the major obstacle preventing deployment of SANs.

According to Val Bercovici, chief technical architect with Network Appliance in Ottawa, while primarily a network attached storage developer, Net App recently found itself smack-dab in the middle of the SAN world, and has been challenged with some of the management issues that surround it. Bercovici said that presently, the SAN management market is faced with a good news-bad news scenario.

“The good news is that vendors realize what customers have been demanding for a long time, which is the desperate need for interoperability…because no one vendor is going to dominate any IT deployment on a large scale,” he said. “But these initiatives take time.”

Not being one to wait and see, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Michigan did what Bercovici deemed most unlikely. Having only become familiar with the use of SAN technology recently, BCBS opted for a conservative approach and deployed a homogeneous SAN by EMC Corp.

“We know that a lot of things are occurring with interoperability and tools that are going to help manage multiple hardware vendor storage,” said Jerry Glass, storage manager for BCBS in Detroit. “The SAN technology was new to our shop, so we wanted to keep it as simple as possible. We didn’t want the complexity of dealing with multiple storage systems.”

BCBS may not be alone in its decision to take a simpler approach to storage, but many companies are likely in the same position as Bruce Power. The Tiverton, Ont.-based utility deployed a mix of software and hardware from vendors including Hewlett-Packard Co., Veritas Software Corp. and Brocade Communications Systems Inc., and has felt the pain of management issues. According to Charles Cleland, manager of IT server network support, just as BCBS discovered, using SAN technology is still relatively new ground.

“Generally speaking, the SAN technology is probably not at the maturity level it needs to be,” Cleland explained. “Because it is immature, it requires a greater degree of care and feeding than what our hope is in the long run.”

However, Cleland remains hopeful that as standards like Bluefin become increasingly popular, there will be less experience and knowledge required to operate a SAN environment.

In the mean time, Illuminata’s Freund offered some advice to frazzled SAN users.

“Pay attention to interoperability and make sure you select not only devices, but also management software that can interoperate with the things you have in-house,” he said. “It may involve some serious discussions with the vendors not only about their technologies, but about their road maps as well. As with any new technology, customers need to build a level of trust and know that this will do what is intended.”