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Storage Management Software Essentials

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Storage management software is a critical tool for today's storage administrator. In fact, aside from sheer data storage capacity and the connectivity technologies, few aspects of maintaining a storage environment are more important than management software.

Available from storage hardware vendors like Dell EMC, HPE, NetApp and IBM, and some independent providers, storage management software typically provides an array of features that enable businesses to monitor and optimize their storage environments, enhance reliability and ensure the continual delivery of storage services to applications and users. Here's what users can expect from most storage management software products.

Key storage management software features

  • Storage monitoring

    This essential capability is at the heart of storage management software packages. Monitoring is the foundation of effective management, allowing IT professionals to keep an eye on the overall health of their storage environments and the data held within, alerting administrators when things go amiss.

  • Reporting and analytics

    Similarly, storage management software generally offers reporting functionality that allows administrators to see how their storage systems and overall environments are performing over time.

    Armed with these insights, IT managers make informed decisions about how best to administer their existing storage resources and appropriately prepare for capacity upgrades, data migrations and other changes brought about by the growing amount of big data collected by businesses nowadays. Advanced storage analytics functionality can also expose opportunities to improve application performance, maximize capacity and improve service levels.

  • Storage Optimization

    Apart from monitoring, reporting and basic data placement tools, many vendors have baked storage-optimization features into their management software.

    For example, it's increasingly common to see data deduplication listed as part of an offering. As the term suggests, data deduplication is a technology that allows organizations to pack more data onto their storage arrays and backup stores by eliminating duplicate data.

    Along those lines, vendors often tout their data compression and automated tiering capabilities, the latter of which can be used to place data on the appropriate type of storage device based on an organization's performance needs and other factors.

  • Unified management

    Finally, many vendors aim to offer administrators a unified view of all their storage resources and services, enabling them to access and control storage systems across an entire enterprise—and increasingly the cloud—consolidating configuration, monitoring and reporting tools into a single interface, or a "single pane of glass" as vendors often tout. This approach not only helps eliminate storage silos, it provides a consistent and predictable user experience compared to juggling a multitude of disparate tools.

When storage management software meets hardware

Here comes the tricky part.

Storage management software works in tandem with the underlying hardware to achieve a desired level of performance, capacity utilization and data availability, among the various other facets of running an enterprise storage environment. Of course, in IT, things are rarely that simple.

Complicating the matter are products that are tied to a vendor's storage hardware ecosystem, enabling full functionality only when they are used together. It's a form of vendor lock-in that CIOs and other IT leaders may bristle at.

Those banking on open-source solutions for their storage management needs may sometimes find that full-fledged hardware support is easier said that done. Likewise, technical support may fall short of the premium support services that major storage hardware vendors extend to their customers.

Storage administrators today may also contend with software-defined data center technologies and their impact on storage networks. Seeking more flexibility, cloud-like IT service delivery and savings, businesses are turning to software-defined storage (SDS) products that harness the power of commodity hardware and virtualization technologies. Legacy, purpose-built arrays and appliances may not willingly play along with this new regime.

IT professionals may also be forced to decide whether it is best to let software or hardware appliances handle some storage operations, like deduplication. They may also have to weigh how seamlessly a storage management product ties together their organization's on-premise and cloud-based storage resources.

In short, a good storage management setup requires a thorough examination of both the sides of the storage software and hardware divide. Performance characteristics, proprietary versus open-source, and standards compliance are among the many factors businesses must take into account while evaluating their options.

Deciding which storage software is right for your data needs

It all boils down to your priorities. Consider these key points as you select storage management software:

Big Data: Wrestling with big data? Again, data deduplication and compression features will help organizations eke out more storage space out of their arrays. But these days, administrators must do much more than make room accommodate big data, they must also help ensure that it is available to databases and big data processing systems that power an organization's business intelligence and analytics applications. This requires big data storage management products that are up to the task.

Flash: The arrival of flash-enabled storage systems means that applications and high-volume transaction systems are faster and more responsive than ever. Of course, this comes at a price premium compared to traditional, disk-based systems.

To ensure that expensive all-flash and hybrid-flash systems are used to their full potential, administrators rely on storage-tiering technologies to help ensure that only the most critical or important data takes up this expensive form of storage capacity. Look for solutions that can be configured to automatically place data on the appropriate storage medium (SSDs, HDDs and tape) depending on an organization's performance, price and capacity requirements.

Cloud Storage: The cloud has opened up new enterprise storage opportunities, but they come with their share of challenges. Look for a cloud-aware management solution that not only provides visibility into your cloud storage subscriptions and the data within them, but also enables you to monitor and control them without jumping through additional hoops.

Double backup: Data protection is another important consideration, and rightly so. Keeping a single copy of a file, database or application data, is a surefire way to court disaster. Although backup software solutions are often in a category of their own, some vendors incorporate enterprise backup and recovery management capabilities into their general storage management products, or at least provide monitoring and analytics capabilities that span their production and backup storage systems and services.

Virtualization: Running VMware or another virtualization platform? Many solutions, particularly those from Dell EMC, VMware's parent company, feature integrations that provide administrators better visibility and more granular controls, helping them meet the demands that virtual application servers place on an organization's networked storage systems.

Mixed environments: Heterogeneous storage environments pose another challenge. A merger or acquisition can mean inheriting a storage infrastructure based on another vendor's hardware and software solutions. Apart from a prohibitively costly migration, establishing a unified storage management environment may involve investing in a third-party solution.

Interoperable: Be forewarned. As previously discussed, a storage vendor's native software solutions generally work best with its own hardware. Although many vendors have claimed to embrace open standards and a spirit of "coopetition," seasoned IT veterans know that getting one company's wares to work seamlessly with another's is easier said than done.

And don't forget: Other factors to consider include provisioning tools, storage traffic routing, automation, WAN optimization, to name a few. In short, choosing a software management package is a challenging task!

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