Building the SAN box

Building the SAN box

As companies uncover ways to deal with the bulging reams of data - including images, email and video - many are turning to network storage solutions including SAN and NAS to help ease the load.

Data is growing at a minimum of 40 per cent each year. Furthermore, organisations need to be aware of regulations that govern how long information is stored, and of how quickly it can be accessed. As a result, IT managers are being asked to manage increasingly large and complex amounts of storage with the same number of employees.

Today, given the growing need for storage, vendors and resellers could add value and differentiate product lines by pitching the concept of information lifecycle management (ILM), EMC Australia's national product manager, Clive Gold, said.

SAN and NAS were just one part of the ILM equation - and one way to jump into the game, Gold said.

ILM recognises that information has a lifecycle and categorises it according to importance and age.

"Depending on the value of the data, you want to match the cost of keeping it," Gold said. "At the grassroots level, you need different places where you can keep information to drive the different cost points. SAN and NAS drive different cost points, uncovering the cost of looking after it and upgrading it."

Indeed, many organisations are implementing network storage as a precursor to ILM.

"If you are going to move information around, you will need the network storage to do that movement and to keep it transparent to everything else," he said.

"It's the building block - once you have the physical network storage in place - then you can look at taking smaller SANs, or smaller segments of SANs, and consolidate them in order to get some cost savings. Then users are starting to automate a lot of the basic functions."

There was a trend towards implementing smaller SANs in a bid to curb the complexity.

"Some organisations have been implementing SAN islands," Gold said. "One island is for email and another one for other applications, and thrown into the mix they'll have a NAS appliance. What they find now is they are still looking after three different SANs on the network appliance as separate things, so they haven't achieved a single environment, and they still have two or three ways to back it up and all of the usual problems."

SAN uptake in Australian enterprise is now reaching the 50 per cent, in part because of reduced prices - in some cases SAN prices had been halved, Gold said.

"It has taken SAN four years to get to the 50 per cent penetration rate," he said. "SANs listed at the 10,000 mark are having an affect. Suddenly we're seeing a lot of small organisations seeing what the larger ones have been doing with the idea of pooled network storage and now it's affordable, and costs them less than a server."

The ILM diet

In addition to getting into a network storage environment, there were two other ILM dishes on the table, Gold said.

"The second thing to do is to implement the ILM concept in a particular application," he said. "The most we do now is in email. So you archive out information, you move information out of your main email system [which makes it smaller and easier to manage and if anything goes wrong you can fix it quickly]. And if anybody asks you for old emails pertaining to transactions it's still available."

The next stage, he said, was to offer cross-applications, which involved standard integration and services opportunities for resellers. "We have the tools now, but they are specific to environments, so the reseller can develop the right solution using the tools and implement that and migrate people across to the new environment," Gold said.

But cross-application was limited.

"Today through technology in our Legato suite, we can do some crossing with an application called Disk Extender, which plugs email systems into databases," he said.

And in a bid to address the challenges of interoperability, EMC is starting to roll out virtualisation across the network storage environment. "We can move information around to any application, transparently, and the operating system and application has no knowledge of that," Gold said.

When implementing a SAN, users were getting benefits from pooling the storage, but now had to deal with additional complexity, he said. "There's another layer to be managed and therefore a downside of the technology," he said.

Helping resellers and vendors with the mixing and matching process - and sifting through the issue of interoperability along with complexity - is the job of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA).

SNIA A/NZ chairman, Mark Heers, said one area of improvement came in the standards realm. Addressing the issue of interoperability, the association recently completed the first version of the Storage Management Initiative (SMI-S) specification, which was developed to standardise interoperable storage management technologies and promote them to the storage, networking and end-user communities.

Network managers looking after multi-vendor SANs have required a range of independent management applications, developed by a number of different vendors and tied to multiple hardware management APIs to keep systems running smoothly, he said.

The specification was a step in the right direction to ensure all storage systems work together.

"It's a major milestone on this journey towards heterogeneous network," Heers said.

The move was significant in that it addressed key growing pains amongst businesses, he said.

"Australian and New Zealand CIOs continue to list areas such as storage management, regulatory compliance, data security, business continuity and the seemingly endless growth of storage as major business concerns," Heers said.

There was a flood of conflicting information around storage, he said, and the push towards network storage had driven the requirements for standard and education. On the network storage front, resellers could pitch servers, switches, management software, as well as services around integration, backup and recovery and security.

And rather than looking at specific technology stacks, the user and reseller needed to consider the policy engines in place, Meta Group analyst, Kevin McIsaac, said. Organisations needed policy engines at the high-end to help drive the performance level.

"Since businesses act like pack rats - with storage growing from 30 to 100 per cent per annum - users need policies in place to deal with the complexities," he said.

While the technology is present, missing in today's business environments are the processes and practices.

"How you tie in the processes, procedures and policies with the technology is the hard part," McIsaac said.

Express Data's technology development manager, George Kahkejian, said resellers should be cautious about overselling the benefits of SAN and NAS products. Instead, they should develop an archiving strategy given people spend more time and money on managing their information than on the hardware they store it on.

"Understanding what customers have first and looking for ways to consolidate information appears most important," he said.

HP Australia's director of network storage solutions, Andrew Manners, agreed, and said HP's ILM strategy helps customers manage data through stages in the lifecycle where the data resides. The stages included: create/modify, replicate and distribute, archive and recall, protect and recover, and remove.

The overall goal - which includes SAN as part of the mix - is to help customers manage the information based on service level objectives as well as ensure that business processes were aligned, Manners said.

"The growth of storage - and the need to automate, and manage data - along with the compliance theme is driving ILM," he said.

For resellers, the opportunities associated with ILM include storage management, consulting and design services, as well as mixing and matching the hardware and software solutions.

The company is working with four partners - Volante is the first to be announced - in a bid to help the channel build ILM practices.

"We're working with them, doing joint workshops, and talking about service offerings and customers," Manners said. Partners can perform an audit of the environment.

"Building the skill sets and defining ILM is a complex thing," he said. "The demand in the marketplace is strong for the technology, and we don't want partners rushing into anything."

Manners expects the ILM vision - where organisations are fully automated - to become reality in 4-6 years time.

Storage architect at Computer Associates A/NZ, Mark Sweetman, said doing a storage resource assessment was the major area of opportunity for resellers eying the network storage/ILM space.

CA is offering customers a service called Information Lifecycle Management Data Profiling assessment, which analyses an organisation's storage architecture and profiles how storage resources are being used and wasted.

"Rather than simply sell more storage disk units, resellers have the opportunity to work with organisations to help them assess and structure their storage requirements," Sweetman said. "Continuing to increase storage capacity without any understanding of where data is being stored will only exacerbate an organisation's storage management predicament - plus it will likely work out much more expensive in the long run."

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