SAN smarts

Learning to install, configure and manage a storage-area network is a hodgepodge affair that is littered with hard-won experience and lessons learned, IT managers say.

“I have not been to a formal training class, but we have worked closely with our vendors to make sure our design is realistic and achievable,” says David Bratt, technology architect for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. “I have definitely picked up a lot of knowledge by working hands-on with the hardware that makes up our SAN.”

Bratt has a Hitachi Data Systems Corp. 9570 storage array connected with a Cisco Systems Inc. MDS 9216 switch to Emulex Corp. and QLogic Corp. host bus adapter installed in Windows, AIX, Sun and Linux servers.

Storage concepts such as SCSI Logical Units (LUN), LUN masking and zoning is enough to confuse any network administrator. Storage is often divided into smaller pieces called LUNs, which then are assigned to one or more servers to give them exclusive use of the storage. Assigning servers to storage LUNs is called LUN masking. Zoning, on the other hand, is the grouping of servers and their assigned storage into domains that can be managed more easily.

Tom Clarke, director of technical marketing at Nishan Systems Inc., agrees that customers need to get their hands on IP storage gear to really understand it. “Although some of the concepts are similar, the actual implementation will vary somewhat between vendors,” he says. “There’s enough variation between vendors that learning by hands-on configuration is the way to do it.”

Like Bratt, many IT managers are learning alongside the vendor that installed, reconfigured or expanded the company’s SAN.

“I learned 90 per cent by doing, 10 per cent from a vendor,” says Rich Banta, senior enterprise systems engineer for St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. “The 90 per cent part led to painful and expensive mistakes on occasion.”

Banta didn’t properly partition the fabric and then compounded the mistake by not masking LUNs when creating volumes on the SAN. “The new LUNs were presented to every server attached to the fabric, causing many of them to re-enumerate their volumes in Windows 2000 Disk Manager. That was an all-night clean-up,” he says.

Banta has two SANs – an XIOtech Corp. Magnitude array linked by Brocade Communications Systems Inc. Silkworm 12000 and 2800 switches to servers containing QLogic host bus adapters, and a Compaq EMA 16000, Emulex host bus adapters and Brocade 2800 and 16EL Fibre Channel switches.

How would these managers fine-tune SAN training if they had to do it again, and what would they do differently?

“Three years ago, when I got into (the storage) business, there was not a lot of commercial training available,” says Ken Walters, senior director for enterprise platforms at Public Broadcasting Service in Alexandria, Va. Walters has an IBM Enterprise Storage Server and FAStT arrays connected with Brocade Silkworm switches to Sun, HP and Windows servers containing Emulex or QLogic host bus adapters.

Storage vendors always have offered a litany of information on their Web sites, Walters says. “There are many more options available now, even from mainstream training companies such as Global Knowledge. The Storage Network Industry Association Web site is also a great resource for finding training, as well as tutorials and white papers,” he says.

Such resources will be useful for boning up on newer storage technologies such as provisioning and virtualization. Bratt says formal training is an option, but the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center probably will rely on publications and vendor documentation to educate its IT staff about emerging technologies.

“In addition, we have a good relationship with our vendors, and they have always been willing to talk with us about anything we have on our minds, as well as new products/technologies that are about to hit the market,” Bratt says.

Another option is to consult high-technology publications. “I learned about SANs by reading a lot of books and articles on SAN technology and design,” Bratt says.

Walters will depend on the same sources he did for installing his SAN. “I’ll look to conferences, storage Web sites, magazines and (vendor) white papers,” he says.

If these managers had a chance to do it over again, they’d do some things differently.

“Make sure that you have a good understanding of what the best practices are before you build and get outside help and review in designing your SAN,” Walters says. “It is very important that you do not design and implement your first SAN without experienced consulting. Once you have built your SAN it’s hard to go back and change things.”

Mark Greene, senior systems engineer for IT Services at Capital Region Health Care in Concord, N.H., offers a surplus of advice.

“Spending some money on training upfront is a worthy investment in the time you’ll save during implementation. The more hands-on you can get prior to installation, the better off you will be,” he says.

Among his other tips: Schedule as much time as possible between SAN installation and data migration, and check with software vendors to see if they recommend certain configuration settings.

While initial training is important, Tom Gonzales, senior network administrator for a large credit union in Denver, says follow-up skills are also necessary in the event of a problem.

“Most of the knowledge transfer from the installing vendor was related to provisioning and volume management,” Gonzales says. “More focus on routine maintenance and troubleshooting would have been nice.” Gonzales has a Dell Inc. PowerVault SAN connected by a Cisco Fibre Channel switch.

And a final word for the SAN-wise. “Have patience,” says Kent Smith, principal consultant for IPSO, a systems integrator in Wayland, Mass., who has an EMC Corp. SAN connected with InRange Technologies Corp. switches.

“Unless you source everything from one vendor, there will undoubtedly be idiosyncrasies in how things fit together. The only training I have seen is vendor-specific, and bridging the gaps between vendors is where the headaches lie.”

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