NETWORK UPLUGGED: Recovering sanity

NETWORK UPLUGGED: Recovering sanity

Let's get this straight - if storage is a service, storage area networks are tools that improve the service," says Dr Kevin McIsaac, having been asked to argue the ‘business case' for storage area networks (SANs). It's experimental selling at its best. Peddling a technological concept that is poised to become the dominant infrastructure for up to 80 per cent of Top 1000 organisations within two years to a journalist probably equals the ability to sell the benefits of SANs to a customer in an hour-long presentation.

Well, maybe not. Most journalists don't have a few hundred thousand dollars to throw at intelligent storage infrastructure, which is what storage area networks are all about. Grappling with the technological intricacies of network and storage-savvy folks' concept du jour is also not our cup of tea. Then again, neither is your customers', which is just one of the reasons that the marketplace is still giving SANs a mixed reception.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that while SANs are becoming more accepted, their cost, complexity of implementation and lack of interoperability still get more air time than the proven performance superiority and flexibility of the technology. A survey by XIOtech Corporation, a subsidiary of Seagate, which looked at the US sites that have recently deployed SANs, revealed that even in the biggest IT market in the world the SAN adoption rate barely translates into double digits. In the Asia-Pacific, the only markets considered to be growing are China and South Korea. Known for its cost-conscious ways, the Australian market is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Most small-to-medium organisations are currently collecting information on available SAN technologies to evaluate how they would fit their storage requirements, according to Bruce Jenkins, guru of storage area networks at BMC Software. However, although integrators such as EnStor and Dimension Data report an increase in SAN uptake (combined, they have carried out around 70 SAN implementations over the last 12 to 18 months), Jenkins believes only about 15 per cent of Australian sites have deployed a SAN.

"Australia doesn't have many ‘large' storage sites with more than 50TB of data on the floor, and most of those are evaluating SANs or working out how to move their direct-attached storage to a SAN," he says.

Given that the majority of Australian customers - approximately 80 per cent - currently manage between 1TB and 20TB of data, Jenkins believes "the data management pain threshold is still relatively small". As a result, storage strategies across the enterprise space remain sketchy and SAN deployments are scarce.

"Many customers don't fully know how they use their current storage and how it supports their critical applications," Jenkins explains. "But, while technology is subservient to the need to get better utilisation of data, organisations don't understand that SANs, while often complex, improve both availability and utilisation of storage assets."

The problem, some analysts claim, is that SANs are still sold to businesses on their connectivity and technological prowess, instead of business benefits. Put this way, the case against SANs easily outweighs the case for them, especially if the majority of organisations are not very sophisticated in the management of their network infrastructure - and research indicates that they are not. Add to that lingering interoperability and implementation problems, and it quickly becomes clear why the issues of cost and complexity regularly come to the fore, and overshadow the strategic business benefits of SAN technology.

"A SAN is not a one-size-fits-all technology," explains Simon Elisha, senior systems engineer at Veritas Software. "Certain businesses will benefit from SAN connectivity, while others will not. There are sites that are experiencing real pain managing 5 terabytes of data - let alone 20 terabytes - and many businesses are starting small with a small fibre-loop before migrating to a more extensive infrastructure set."

Elisha says the decision to move to a SAN should clearly be based on business and technological considerations. The SAN should support and expand business capability, and provide more appropriate technology to support changing business requirements. This strategy is consistent with the long-term planning and expense calculations that organisations should undertake when planning their storage infrastructure. Yet most organisations still plan their storage requirements on an ad hoc basis, according to Kevin McIsaac, program director for intelligent storage infrastructure at Meta Group.

"Historically, organisations have purchased and deployed storage resources such as mechanical disks, backup and recovery software, tape devices and robotic libraries on an individual or as-needed application/server basis," McIsaac says. "But as electronic business initiatives increase an enterprise's demands for information storage, many organisations will have to realise that storage is another critical infrastructure that must be developed to support rapidly changing business requirements."

Integrators need to hone in on these business benefits - and make sure that they communicate this to their customers - rather than the nitty-gritty of how the technology works.

"There are a lot of companies that implemented a SAN, but don't know why they did it," says Greg Bowden, business manager at Dimension Data. "Yet business drivers for SANs are manifold, and finding them helps the customer realise the benefits of SANs."

Bowden highlights the cost benefit, based on the consolidation of storage systems, as one of the main selling points.

"Cost reduction is a priority for customers and, with SANs, storage becomes a way to do it," he argues. "Being able to offer common services - for instance, common disaster recovery, backup and recovery, merging of disk and tape in the backup strategy, and consolidation of print and file servers - are all big drivers for the SAN market."

Veritas's Elisha points out that companies are trying to grapple with growing volumes of data. This can range from customer databases, data warehousing and e-mail, through to multimedia applications. "Added to this is the shortage of skilled personnel and budgets for additional administrators, requiring a mechanism for managing more storage per person," Elisha says.

SAN technology is an enabler that may provide a solution to these problems, which is where the channel can step in to help. Nick Blozan, distribution manager at Veritas, sees opportunities for resellers to service this market. "Virtually every customer is experiencing rapid data growth with little or no growth in their own IT departments," he says.

According to Blozan, disaster recovery has also become extremely critical to senior management. "Partners who are able to assess the criticality of applications and data, and then architect solutions for providing the appropriate level of availability, are in hot demand," he says.

"In addition to the licence revenue from both software and hardware, the services opportunity is significant, due to the fact that most customers have insufficient expertise in storage, SANs, and storage architectures."

However, integrators should ensure that they help their clients assess the advantages of implementing either SAN or NAS solutions. As Elisha points out, the choice between NAS and SAN comes down to purpose. "In the end, they are two sides of the same coin," he says. "In simple terms you use a SAN to deliver block-based data [such as databases and multimedia], and NAS to deliver file-based data [typically file server applications]."

The biggest impediment to SAN uptake, however, is poor implementation. Ken Wood, managing director of EnStor, says customers are often left with infrastructure they can't do anything with.

Wood believes that single-product vendors contribute to the confusion by using multiple competing operating standards, while interoperability is still is in its infancy and fraught with problems. Others agree: "Recently, we had to work with the Brocade and [EMC] Connectrix switches that were based on two sets of standards that really weren't standards yet," complains one integrator. "Within the next year, they will play together well, but at the time we did this SAN, they did not."

A number of SAN-related standards bodies, such as the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and Fiber Channel Industry Association (FCIA) are working on integrating the management of multiple hardware solutions under one umbrella. Indeed, not only are SANs becoming more open, management tools that deal with multiple vendors' products are becoming more sophisticated.

But, to be a player in the SAN space, Wood says one ultimately has to have storage expertise, minimum service-level and project-management skills, and the ability to use them to your customer's advantage. Everything else is pure business sense.

Where does your customers’ network management time go?

Provisioning 30-35%.

Backup and recovery 25-30%.

Monitoring and corrective action 20%.

Capacity planning 5%.

Disaster recovery planning 5%.

Source: Dr Kevin McIsaac, Meta Group.

Storage improvements organisations are looking forBetter disaster recovery capability 75.3%.

Reduced/eliminated backup windows 51.8%.

Automated backup 45.9%.

Improved data availability 44.7%.

More sophisticated management tools 34.1%.

Storage on demand 28.2%.

Storage device sharing/pooling 24.7%.

Increased disk utilisation 24.7%.

More terabytes managed per administrator 22.4%.

Source: StorageTek Storage Survey 2002.

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