IT managers give SANs a qualified thumbs-up

Early this year, mortgage lender Fannie Mae Corp. went live with a new primary data center and storage-area network (SAN) to address its sprawling storage needs. Now 1,150 of the company’s 1,400 servers are attached to the SAN, which backs up 80TB of data weekly.

But Brian Cobb, vice president of systems engineering at Washington-based Fannie Mae, this week said he has yet to see a storage management platform that can handle his entire multivendor infrastructure. Nor has he found virtualization software that can pool all of his storage resources and serve them up in a utilitylike fashion to end users.

“We need to have improved interoperability and management tools,” Cobb said, echoing a common refrain that was heard at the Storage Networking World conference here last week. The event, which drew about 2,150 attendees, was co-sponsored by Computerworld and the Mountain View, Calif.-based Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA).

Almost every IT executive who spoke about rolling out a SAN during the past three years said there has been a significant return on investment associated with the project. Users cited benefits such as simplified storage management and the ability to consolidate IT resources.

But some attendees said there are downsides to multivendor storage installations.

For example, Garrett Grainger, CIO at pencil and marker manufacturer Dixon Ticonderoga Co. in Heathrow, Fla., said during a panel discussion that data availability — specifically, “being able to recover when we have issues” — is his biggest concern. He said he’s trying to switch to a single-vendor infrastructure in order to simplify that task.

Previously, Dixon Ticonderoga had a large mix of devices in its storage environment. But Grainger said that when IT problems prompted the company’s vendors to engage in a round of finger-pointing, he had to hire a mediator to sort out the difficulties.

Storage vendors are taking steps to ease the complexity of managing mixed SANs. At last week’s conference, a group of about 20 vendors demonstrated a multivendor storage network that was managed through a single interface based on specifications that are being developed by the SNIA.

Products that support the specifications are expected to appear next year. But some conference attendees said they don’t want to hear promises vendors won’t be able to keep.

“Don’t come in here and tell me you can do something and not be able to demonstrate it to my team,” said Rick Peterson, vice president of IT operations and production services at DirecTV Inc., a satellite TV company in El Segundo, Calif.

Despite that warning, Peterson said he’s confident that a pair of redundant multivendor SANs DirecTV began using in September will pay off. He declined to comment on the cost of the project but said he expects the SANs to produce an ROI within 20 months.

Peterson said he mitigated the risks of the SAN installation by doing intensive testing and collaboration with DirecTV’s vendors, which include Hewlett-Packard Co., Houston-based BMC Software Inc. and Waltham, Mass.-based StorageNetworks Inc.