Users: Networked storage still tough

The plight faced by storage administrators is clear: Vendors armed with hefty research and development budgets have scrambled to deliver software that could make their customers’ lives easier, but thus far the products have failed to live up to their billing, at least according to users in Chicago this week at the Storage Decisions conference.

“The basic challenge is that the technology is new,” said Laurence Whittaker, supervisor of enterprise storage management at Hudson’s Bay Co. in Toronto, during a panel discussion. “(The vendors) really don’t know what the best practices are because they really have not been established yet.”

Companies are moving away from direct connections between their servers and storage systems, choosing instead to set up SANs that let them link different types of hardware via a switching network. The shift away from direct-attached storage should help free up more data within a company and help users consolidate the number of storage systems they need to manage.

But the relative newness of SAN technology is posing problems for users that vendors like EMC Corp., Veritas Software Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. are struggling to solve.

Users are finding that the storage vendors do, on occasion, deliver capable software, but that there are at best loose definitions as to how the management applications should best be used. In addition, squabbles among the vendors have slowed the pace at which they make their hardware and software work together, which means users must do a lot of dirty work to get a SAN up and running.

“What we would really like to see over time is some kind of standard, cookie-cutter way of deploying and managing storage,” Whittaker said. “I don’t think these best practices will come from the vendor community; I think they will come from user groups such as this one.”

Many users are not quite ready to use the complex management features provided by the vendors. Tools for automatically provisioning storage space for business software or data back-up tasks across multiple SANs require that administrators know what types of management policies should serve as guides for the software. This is an onerous task for some companies that are just coming up to speed on SAN technology.

“A lot of what we are doing is trying to understand the tools,” said Jerry Glass, storage manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “And the tools only work as well as your policies.”

With new management software, users can set guidelines for the ways their SAN should respond to poor performance, dwindling capacity or hardware failures. A company can, for example, make sure that storage systems always free up more space for a critical database and that information travelling to and from the database runs along the most efficient paths. Setting these types of policies across a complex Web of applications, servers and storage systems is still a mystery to most.

Glass has decided to take a start-small approach where he is building out his network one SAN at a time. This method has allowed him to take a look at how all of the systems and software interoperate and where it makes sense to alter the SAN.

Another user agreed that it makes sense to see how a SAN evolves instead of just jumping in head first.

“In general, we should have maybe architected the SAN for growth rather than let growth dictate how we architected it,” said Eric Ihde, systems manager of technology operations at Intuit Inc. in San Diego, Calif., during the panel discussion.

Ihde found that he had switches and storage systems sprawled throughout the network, as he raced to keep up with a growing SAN. In the future, he hopes to avoid such chaos by planning ahead and laying out a SAN in a more scripted fashion similar to current server networks.

While these users face large challenges, they are committed to the SAN concept with the vast majority of show attendees saying they plan to expand their networks over the next two to three years.

So, despite being stuck between a rock and a hard place and not able to get what they want, the users are willing to stick it out and help the technology mature.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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