Operation interoperability

Operation interoperability

The demand for enterprise storage continues to grow exponentially despite continuing debate over the many different standards and resultant interoperability problems. But the industry is making good progress toward solving the problems, reports David Hellaby.

IT organisations are turning to new approaches for managing their storage, including consolidation and centralisation. It is no longer sufficient just to add another disc or tape; companies are becoming more conscious of cost-efficiency and are demanding more from the industry in terms of interoperability. According to Meta Group's latest Enterprise Storage: Technology Adoption and Deployment Trends report, 60 per cent of IT organisations will turn to enterprise storage consolidation solutions to improve utilisation, lower cost of ownership, and increase return on storage investments.

"Storage volumes are growing at phenomenal rates, yet IT organisations cannot justify ballooning storage budgets," says Sean Derrington, who co-authored the study. "Storage consolidation solutions are now being adopted within mainstream IT organisations, because they realise that a flexible, consolidated infrastructure can help manage the increased demands for data availability and evolving application requirements, without breaking the budget."

IT organisations expect budget allocations for overall storage services, storage hardware and software infrastructure to be constant year over year as a percentage of total IT budgets. "If not tightly controlled, costs tend to increase because business requirements have become more complex," says Derrington. "Another important factor of complexity is the storage technology itself, which offers various solutions, from offline storage devices, to network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs). It is critical that users first understand which problems they are trying to solve."

Gerard Florian, Dimension Data Australia’s chief technology officer, says organisations are starting to look to newer technologies that consolidate and integrate the platforms and products they already have. Dimension Data’s own survey of IT directors, CIOs, CTOs and IT managers showed that 47 per cent planned to direct IT spending towards management of applications or infrastructure in the coming year, with 44 per cent specifically targeting storage.

Meanwhile, Graham Penn, IDC’s director for storage research, Asia-Pacific, says many organisations are increasingly concerned about their storage resources and how they should be developed and optimised to meet the changing needs of their organisation. “The growth in storage requirements, new applications and new data types has presented new challenges to the IT executive charged with managing the organisation's storage resources.

“Coupled with the trend towards connecting all users in the organisation to a centralised storage resource, IT executives are finding that the older storage systems have trouble keeping up with the demands of new users and new applications.

“IT executives today are dealing every day with critical issues of degraded performance, application bottlenecks, excessive downtime for maintenance and upgrades, and increasing demands for more appropriate anti-disaster measures,” Penn says. “The easy response of simply buying additional storage capacity is not going to be cost-effective in the long run.”

The major problem that IT managers have faced for the past decade when selecting a storage solution has not just been the myriad of standards, but a lack of truly open ones -- and a resultant lack of interoperability between them. With three different architectures -- DAS (direct-attached storage), NAS and SANs -- each with their own sets of standards, careful planning is required to create infrastructure that can stand the test of time.

DAS, which comprises the hard disk drives contained within a computer, is the most inefficient method of storing large amounts of data but in the past has offered the fastest access to data. NAS uses a specialised file server that connects to any standard LAN and contains its own slimmed-down operating and file systems. NAS enables new storage to be quickly added to a network by plugging it into a network hub or switch.

By comparison, a SAN is a network of storage disks that can be used to connect several servers to a centralised storage facility. As a result, it treats all of an organisation’s storage as a single resource, and that means disk maintenance and routine backups are easier to schedule and control. Much of its growth has been driven by fibre channel, which enables a SAN to be distributed by connecting a collection of nodes scattered around a building or campus.

While SAN is arguably the most flexible of the systems, it has also suffered most from interoperability problems, not only as a result of the multitude of vendors providing management solutions, but also through early difficulties in integrating with NAS.

But Simon Johnson of Dell says interoperability is no longer the problem it once was. “There are universal standards emerging and we are starting to see vendors sharing APIs, so interoperability is becoming a lot easier than it has ever been.

“Keep in mind that when we talk of standards we are usually talking about SANs because NAS is a very open infrastructure, which typically allows access from any type of client and works on most types of network. There are also lot of software solutions emerging that allow SAN and NAS to co-exist a lot easier than in the past.”

Earlier this month, the international Storage Network Industry Association (SNIA) announced it would adopt and further develop a new specification called Bluefin, which was originally developed by a group of several of the leading storage vendors. Bluefin is an open, vendor-neutral API (application programming interface) for device discovery, monitoring and management on a SAN. The association plans to use it as the cornerstone for a full-fledged management standard that is being developed as part of its Storage Management Initiative. Bluefin provides verifiable interoperability standards, removing the major obstacle preventing deployment of SANs. It tackles interoperability by serving as a common interface between multi-vendor SAN management applications, sub-systems and devices, making them easier to monitor and manage. According to the SNIA, multi-vendor SANs should also be more reliable and secure with Bluefin-enabled products.

SNIA board member Dona Stever thinks Bluefin shows that the storage industry is moving in the right direction. She says that developing the Bluefin specification took a lot of time from a lot of people, “but the effort was worth it, when you compare the state of storage management today with its future potential with the standard that evolves from Bluefin”.

Clive Gold, EMC’s director of marketing for Australia and New Zealand, says there is “a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the various standards in storage, because market leaders will bring out technology before anyone else and the best delaying tactic for the second and third-placed vendors is to cast doubt on what the leaders are doing.

“They will tell people that the new technology doesn’t comply with a standard and the developers don’t know what they are doing. But as soon as they catch up, they change their mind.

“In some ways this confusion is an opportunity for the channel because there is no doubt that when technologies are new there are interoperability issues. There is a great opportunity for the integrator because people want to take advantage of the new technology to drive their business ahead and the integrator has the skills to help a business work through the issues of a new technology and get everything running smoothly. That’s why we work with channel operators who are integrators.”

Gold says the way to get true open management is to get common APIs. “We invited everybody a year ago to join us and share APIs but there was a lot of comment in the press at the time that suggested we were giving away the crown jewels and handing over our technology.

“Now, a year later, everything has changed and we are getting those standards.” Gold says he expects Bluefin to be adopted very quickly and EMC will start to integrate it into products within one to two quarters.

Sun Microsystems has already announced new storage management software based on Bluefin’s core Web-based Enterprise Management and Common Information Model (WBEM-CIM).

Sun claims that its StorEdge ESM software is the first WBEM-CIM-based product to hit the market. The new software manages Hitachi Data Systems, QLogic and Brocade devices and is available for Solaris. It is remotely managed from Linux, HP-UX or Web-based interfaces.

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