Storage Automation: The Future of Storage

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Can storage automation address the larger problem of managing storage without boundaries?

Driven by the growth of e-commerce, globalization, and users’ expectations of zero latency, the need to intelligently manage access to and the storage of data is becoming mission-critical to businesses across the globe.

Managing storage has always been about managing risk, and the latest piece of that puzzle is automation. The earliest form of automated storage management appeared when scripts were applied to storage problems. This same approach is seen today as vendors get their “toes wet” in storage automation by delivering automation solutions developed around a specific storage task, such as provisioning. As we’ve seen with scripts, though, this approach is limiting in that it can often only be used for one specific task.

Karen Dutch, InterSan’s vice president of marketing, says current SAN management tools provide only passive “map and monitor” device-centric capabilities. “That’s precisely why Gartner coined the term Storage Area Management (SAM). SAM is a next-generation management category focused on taking a top-down or applications-based approach to managing storage, as opposed to the bottoms-up (device-centric) approach, which includes provisioning,” says Dutch.

Script-based Approach: Advantages and Disadvantages

Dutch goes on to say that initial automation implementations were wizard based or script based. “While the wizard-based approach does simplify the task a bit, it doesn’t make it foolproof, and it doesn’t enable a non-expert to perform the task.” Dutch says that wizards are like a cook book in that they only walk an expert through the steps. Full automation based on customizable policies, however, masks all of the nasty, complex steps in the process and ensures that the right steps are performed transparently in the right order and at the right time, she says.

“Policy is very important for intelligent automation, as it allows each company to define and codify the operational procedures that are then used to customize the automation. So the difference is — wizards give you a cookbook, while automation gives you a prepared Julia Child’s gourmet dinner. The evolution is scripts > wizards > policy-driven automation,” concludes Dutch.

“Scripts are certainly one way to implement automation and are often the best method for handling events that are unique to a particular customer’s infrastructure,” says Wayne Lam, vice president of FalconStor. “However, creating a customized infrastructure based on scripts has disadvantages as well — requiring significant resources and skills to maintain the infrastructure as storage demands and technologies evolve.”

Is the Provisioning of Storage the Next Step?

Is the Provisioning of Storage the Next Step?

With that said, is the next phase of automation the provisioning of storage, especially in a SAN environment? Lam says that automated provisioning is being done today in more advanced storage infrastructures and will continue to become more common. Rather than explicitly provisioning storage, he says, customers want to define operations in terms of the capacity, performance, and reliability policies necessary to meet business objectives.

Additionally, Lam reports that customers want to be able to utilize automation within the storage management system to manage the underlying physical devices; however, he does not believe that customers see this as a separate phase. “They are looking for automated solutions to all of their most pressing storage problems with the result that the shift toward automation is accelerating across the full spectrum of storage management functions. In addition to provisioning initial or expansion storage and backup (arguably the first automated storage function), IT departments are implementing automation for critical functions such as archiving, replication, migration to appropriate hardware based on service requirements, etc.,” he says.

Dutch seems to think that there are a number of very manually intensive and error-prone tasks involved in managing shared storage services. Provisioning storage to applications is one of these tasks. “Today, provisioning is a complex set of 28-45 steps that must be performed in the right order and at the right time by a storage expert using a variety of vendor tools and spreadsheets,” says Dutch. “I’ve talked to dozens of storage administrators over the last year and have found it typically takes 55 minutes to provision a single volume to an application. True end-to-end policy-based automation (not wizards) of the provisioning process can reduce the time to 1 minute,” she claims.

Managing Storage Now and Into the Future without Going Bankrupt

Enterprises and SMB automate their storage hardware to manage the raw capacity increases that are part and parcel of an IT operation. But there’s another reason as well: obsolescence. With the aid of integrators and VARs, IT users have to plan their storage, now and for the future. The problem is that it’s difficult to plan too far into the future. Changes come too rapidly. So, how can IT managers effectively manage storage now and into the future without going bankrupt from trying to keep up with all the changes?

According to Dutch, the answer is policy-based automation of manual management tasks. “Policy-based management automation masks the complexities of the various devices, allowing IT to seamlessly introduce and use new technology. Without it, it can take weeks and months for IT staff to become fully educated on new technology and successfully integrate it into the data center.” She went on to say policy-based management automation also ensures that IT maximizes the use of its storage resources and provides accurate and current information on who and how the resources are used, which is vital for effective capacity planning and forecasting.

Lam believes that to successfully accommodate and leverage rapidly changing storage technologies, IT managers need software solutions that separate logical storage operations (provisioning, backing up, replicating, migrating, etc.) from managing the underlying infrastructure. “For example, database administrators [DBAs] have traditionally implemented advanced storage subsystems for mission-critical applications,” he says.

“With the advent of SANs and storage management software, the DBA can be provisioned from appropriate subsystems without being involved in managing the required volumes and hardware,” Lam continued. Lam feels that as new storage technologies are adopted, the database can be migrated or extended to leverage the new technologies. And, at the same time, the old storage can be used to provide redundancy (for high availability or disaster recovery) or be re-allocated for other applications.

Can Tape Automation Effectively Supplement Rotating Storage?

Can Tape Automation Effectively Supplement Rotating Storage?

When combined with software management tools such as hierarchical storage management, massive amounts of data can be accessed promptly by automated systems, which enables data-intensive applications like document processing to be both efficient and cost-sensitive. However, the big question is can tape automation effectively supplement rotating storage by boosting capacities, restraining cost, and enabling other tools such as virtualization?

“We believe that there is a role for many different types of media, including tape. Storage should be allocated using media that offers the appropriate combination of cost, accessibility, reliability, shelf life, etc.,” says Lam. Automated systems that manage data on disk (from high-end arrays down to inexpensive JBOD), DVD, tape, etc. will enable customers to meet their business and regulatory requirements, according to Lam.

“There’s an old saying from the late 1980s that’s still true: ‘Lack of management automation creates an artificial barrier to growth,'” says Dutch. She believes that a comprehensive set of management automation products that spans all storage mediums could efficiently and effectively restrain spiraling costs. Additionally, new technologies that virtualize the file system in addition to the underlying storage are on the horizon. Dutch says that while today they may seem quite revolutionary, they will eventually become widely deployed.

Providing the Foundation for Intelligent, Rules-based, Policy-driven Storage Management

Storage automation addresses the larger problem of managing storage without boundaries. Many industry experts believe that it will provide the foundation for intelligent, rules-based, and policy-driven storage management. They also believe it will be able to automatically discover storage resources as they are added to the infrastructure and intelligently configure those resources, allocate capacity, balance workloads, move data to the most appropriate storage, and manage backup and recovery.

Enterprise storage automation promises to deliver a comprehensive set of solutions that integrates all major areas of storage management, data availability, storage resource management, media, and SAN and NAS storage management.


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Leslie Wood

Leslie Wood
Leslie Wood
Leslie. Wood is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor.

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