A vision of togetherness

A vision of togetherness

For years, server and storage management have been on parallel, but separate, technology development tracks. IT executives, confronted with quickly multiplying numbers of servers and storage arrays, put them there. They’ve needed to treat these platforms as distinct entities that require different networks, management strategies and even staffs to maintain efficiencies within the data centre.

But as companies roll out data centre architectures, these two islands need to blend. Convergence, required to further simplify and improve data centre efficiencies, will be quite possible with the array of new and emerging technologies. These include data centre service management and automation tools, blade servers, utility and grid computing, storage-area networks (SAN), grid storage, information lifecycle management (ILM), policy-based management tools and the all-important virtualisation.

Virtualisation is not a new concept in the server or storage markets. Companies are already benefitting from the ability to create distinct server and storage resource pools, masking the physical components from users and applications. But integrated server and storage virtualisation holds the key to true management convergence.

Where virtualisation got its start

In the server market, virtualisation surfaced initially for use with mainframes. In this environment, virtualisation tools assisted in workload management and improved utilisation.

In the late 1990s, virtualisation tools emerged for Unix and Windows servers. These let multiple virtual operating systems run on one physical machine but be logically independent with consistent hardware profiles. Sometimes referred to as server resource management, these tools include partition managers, virtual machines, virtual partitions and logical partitions. Such tools have grown in importance as a means to improve server utilization rates, as well as to better align and manage application performance on different server platforms, ranging from blade servers to large symmetrical multiprocessing systems.

In storage, the earliest use of virtualisation emerged in the early 1990s with the first RAID subsystems, which essentially combined that technology with aggregation. By the late ‘90s, in came storage virtualisation appliances aimed at improving management and utilisation. Since then, storage virtualisation has evolved from a standalone technology to a feature of storage infrastructure management tools. This means it resides on host servers, on storage arrays or, increasingly, on intelligent switches in the storage network.

Storage virtualisation has also enabled higher-level management functions. With a virtualisation feature, data management tools can better handle snapshots, replication, capacity on demand and policy-based decisions. Volume management, also considered a form of virtualisation, has become a mandatory part of most data centres with storage networks and large storage arrays. In the coming years, it will increasingly be a feature of entry-level storage arrays that target IP storage and entry-level storage networks.

Toward the fully virtualised data centre

Such evolving server and storage virtualisation capabilities have prompted IT executives to begin rethinking their traditional, regimented, device-driven, client/server data centre architectures. Virtualisation lets them consider a model in which they organise data centre components as shared resources. This will culminate in an environment where all storage, server and network resources are virtualised into one pool.

The shift toward this ideal accelerates at each layer as new technologies take advantage of the growing computer and network power available to application sets. As IT executives reassess how to deploy and manage these technologies into a more service-driven utility data centre architecture, large system vendors and start-ups will roll out technologies that will drive the evolution of the data centre into a utility model.

Regarding the convergence of server and storage virtualisation, management tools that tie together the provisioning and utilisation of servers and storage in various ways will start emerging in the next several years. Most will come under the guise of the emerging data centre automation market, which will grow to more than $1 billion in revenue by 2006 as more customers deploy blade servers, new generations of storage arrays and storage management tools, and larger storage networks.

Over the next five years, labour-intensive, manual tasks handled piecemeal today will migrate to automated and highly intelligent tasks. (The question remains regarding how multi-vendor and heterogeneous these approaches will be, as most virtualisation tools available today tend to be somewhat tied to hardware platforms or operating systems.)

The drivers

Integrated server and storage virtualisation will occur as IT executives change the way they deploy data centre infrastructure. This means shifting operations, application services and hardware infrastructure into more of a service model, commonly referred to as utility computing (and a number of vendor-specific initiatives). Industry drivers that will influence the integration of server and storage virtualisation longer term include:

Data centre service management: Many IT executives increasingly want to assign and maintain service levels at the application level, which will require better management of server and storage resources as groups instead of single entities.

Data centre automation tools: These tools, which provision application, network and other resources, will increasingly take advantage of the availability, monitoring and utilisation capabilities of server and storage virtualisation collectively.

Blade servers: As more customers deploy blade servers, the need to virtualise the server hardware will increase to mask the physical number of servers working on a specific application. At the same time, these servers will need to integrate tightly with storage networks because of the reliance on network storage.

Network storage: Today, storage virtualisation is actively used to manage SANs. As storage networks become more prolific for Fibre Channel and IP networks, the need to integrate with server virtualisation technologies will increase at the array, host and in the storage network itself.

Grid computing and storage: Grid computing and grid storage technologies rely on virtualisation to develop a common pool of resources (servers and storage). As these models accelerate with more commercial deployments, corporate IT executives increasingly will want to view resources via a master management console that gauges their availability, performance and utilisation.

ILM: This is a new storage deployment philosophy for managing the lifecycle of data from its creation to deletion. As part of this environment, the need to maintain service levels in support of specific application services will require management tools that can tap into server and storage virtualisation to monitor the environment.

Two types of vendors will be actively involved in the convergence of server and storage virtualisation in the coming years. The first group includes the system (storage and server) vendors, including Dell, EMC, HP, IBM, Network Appliance and Sun. Today, many provide management tools that are platform- or operating-system-specific for storage and server virtualisation.

However, many of them will clearly be integrating server and storage management platforms to address their customers’ long-term management needs. An example of the convergence is EMC’s purchase of VMware. This convergence should result in a consolidated platform that integrates virtualisation, volume management and other infrastructure management components from EMC’s storage products with VMware’s server virtualisation products.

The second group includes management software vendors that are tackling growing layers of data centre management from the application level through the back-end storage systems. This includes companies such as Veritas Software and Computer Associates. Veritas has picked up a number of companies over the past year to broaden its data centre management strategy. It acquired Ejasent for application-level virtualisation and availability, and Jareva for server provisioning. Veritas will probably integrate these new products with its volume management and other storage virtualisationtools.

The convergence of server and storage virtualisation will accelerate over the next year as vendors start to connect the use of virtualisation technologies to differentiate themselves. The first integration wave will be product-specific — meaning vendors will tie functionality directly into their own server or storage management strategies. At the same time, server virtualisation tools will continue to integrate more aggressively with broader policy-based management tools and frameworks over the next 24 months.

Integrated server and storage virtualisation is predicted to arrive starting in early 2005, with full integration occurring during the next three years. By 2007, server virtualisation will be a common way to manage server utilisation, availability and provisioning, especially for industry-standard servers. At the same time, storage management tools will take advantage of storage virtualisation as a feature that organises storage capacity, either volumes or files. As a result, intelligent, policy-based storage management tools will be able to focus more on what the data actually represents and less on the actual location of the data. Server management tools, in turn, will leverage this same information to improve application performance, availability and server utilisation.

A missing piece

The lack of a standard way for vendors’ tools to communicate with each other presents a problem. And given heterogeneous enterprise server and storage environments, such a standard will be essential if integration is to work.

Today, the storage market has begun the shift to a standard way for device management. This standard, the Storage Management Initiative Standard, will give vendors a common way over time to perform storage virtualisation. No similar standard exists in the server virtualisation market, although many vendors have said they wish to begin building an industry-standard API to allow the communication of different server management tools. A likely scenario is that the Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF) develops such a standard, which would take upward of three to four years to complete. The DMTF has begun to take a strong role in defining how utility computing components will speak to each other, and standardising the virtualisation layers will be crucial to any standard in the utility computing market.

To be sure, the vision and hope are attainable. One day, integrated server and storage virtualisation will bridge the management islands that hamstring data centre managers today based on hardware platform, operating environment and vendor. In the longer term, if an administrator brings a new server online, storage provisioning should happen automatically. In managing the environment, IT should clearly see the relationships between servers and the storage environment. This includes paths between servers and storage, awareness of which servers and storage are hosting application services, and integration with policy tools that manage thresholds, capacity and overall availability and performance.

Lastly, having an integrated server and storage virtualisation strategy could realise the concept of autonomic computing. This includes allowing servers and storage infrastructure that will self-heal, dynamically change as requirements increase or decrease, and provide transparent migration of applications to servers and storage systems.

Technology checklist

You can prepare today for tomorrow’s integrated server and storage management potential by:

* Considering server and storage consolidation projects that leverage virtualisation. While in the short term tools for server and storage virtualisation will be separate, consider using these tools to assist in consolidation projects to improve utilisation of servers and storage.

* Evaluating vendors based on their strategies to build integration. Over the longer term, it will be important to choose vendors that have begun to demonstrate integration with other third-party tools.

* Determining how integrated server and storage virtualisation strategies could assist your move to a service-based operations model (or utility computing initiative). A core requirement of today’s enterprise data centre operations increasingly is focused on defining and maintaining service levels. By employing consolidated server and storage virtualisation strategies, customers should meet service levels more effectively and improve efficiencies and utilisation of server and storage resources.

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