Storage administrators are often the unsung heroes of data management. Charged with maintaining data availability and safeguarding the vital information that drives their companies’ businesses, storage administrators frequently face restrictive budgets, a lack of support from upper management, and the joy of juggling the requirements of multiple departments simultaneously.
For most IT shops, the storage administrator’s tasks are further complicated by a lack of uniform management tools and infrastructure. An eclectic mix of applications, server platforms, storage assets, and management and backup software of various vintages presents a constant and frustrating challenge. The bottom line is that unless you’re a storage administrator in a well-heeled enterprise with an unlimited budget, it’s not easy being you.
Storage administrators do not have to suffer in perpetual isolation, though, as a gaggle of new vendors is ever willing to parade through the data center, each offering its own version of storage salvation. Yet despite the occasional free lunch or dinner, salvation never comes cheaply. Still, even with ever-tightening IT budgets, storage administrators can dream that one or another of these solutions will actually make life bearable, provided upper management can be sold on the idea of spending money to save money.
If the proposed path to salvation is a SAN, there’s actually ample justification for funding. SAN technology has a proven track record of reducing overall storage administrative costs and facilitating data availability. On the other hand, SANs also have a proven track record of operational, management, and interoperability issues as well, and all too often vendors propose various boxes instead of well-formulated solutions. For the storage administrator, the trick is to maximize cost savings and the benefits of SANs while minimizing exposure to new and unexpected problems that may be inherent in the proposed solution.
Ever a Balancing Act
Balancing the advantages that SANs provide with the liabilities that accompany a new technology is no simple task, especially if those potential liabilities are buried beneath vendor promises of paradise. One of the recurring complaints of storage administrators is that there is no World Court to take the vendor to if promises are broken or go unfulfilled. This is especially true in the case of small and medium-sized businesses that lack the economic clout to force vendors to make good on their pre-sale promises; it would take a stadium full of Judge Judys to process the current backlog of complaints.
The resolution, though, seems fairly straightforward: vendors should not oversell their product capabilities, and storage administrators and IT managers should take a Missouri-like “show me” approach to evaluating SAN proposals.
Vendors and customers sometimes idealize their relationship since it initially satisfies deep longings on both sides. The vendor pines for the loyal customer who will, without hesitation, continue to fax orders for more products at whatever price. The customer, on the other hand, constantly longs for the storage solution that maps perfectly to their business needs, that never sees obsolescence, and that scales harmoniously with current and future requirements.
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The vendor’s desires too often lead to excessive marketing and inflated claims, which fuel the passion of the customer for a comprehensive storage solution decorated with brilliant bells and whistles. As in any relationship, a prolonged state of mutual deception is unsustainable, and eventually even the naïve administrator will realize that although life may be better now than it was yesterday, in the light of day the vendor’s performance is not so satisfying after all.
Storage administrators and managers are beset by vendors on the one hand and their own users on the other. In the tug of war between increasing user requirements and vendor product limitations, the storage administrator often ends up as the knot in the middle of a very tight rope. Adopting a SAN strategy at least breaks the cycle of spontaneous acquisition of servers simply to attain more storage capacity.
SANs make it easier to bring new resources online, but the technology still requires manual administration to create and assign LUNs and volumes, and presents new SAN management issues as well. For the storage administrator or manager, implementing a SAN is forward motion toward the goals of both reducing costs and streamlining storage management, but current SAN technology alone cannot achieve that goal.
Delivering On the Ideal
The ideal of a self-configuring, self-monitoring, self-scaling, interoperable, and application-aware storage environment, as first formulated in Digital’s Enterprise Network Storage Architecture (ENSA) and later in EMC’s Universal Data Tone, still resonates profoundly with storage administrators. The storage utility model, however, requires a sophisticated and intelligent infrastructure that is still under construction.
Who will pay for all the intermediate technologies required to get from where we are today to where we all want to be? You, the storage administrator, of course. As an example, between the first generation of limited, relatively slow, and very expensive PCs, and today’s feature-rich, high performance, and inexpensive platforms, successive generations of interim technology quickly went onto and off of the books of every enterprise.
Today’s SANs are just the first steps along an evolutionary path towards the storage utility ideal, and while more expensive and complex than future products may be, these SANs still offer quantifiable value compared to direct-attached storage models. Part of the difficulty of being you is in being responsible for purchase decisions on the products of today that you know will be superceded by new technologies over the next few years.
Vendors are increasingly aware of the contradiction created by a rapidly changing technology and the customer’s need to address immediate problems. To maintain viability, a vendor must create and offer solutions that accommodate both evolving customer requirements and the introduction of new features and functionality.
In the long term, those vendors responsible for designing solutions that accommodate current and future needs will be successful in winning and expanding market share. As SAN technology continues to evolve towards a storage utility, it should become much easier being you and much more likely that storage administration will be recognized as the key component of the enterprise that it truly is.
Director of Technical Marketing, Nishan Systems
Author: Designing Storage Area Networks Second Edition (2003) (available at Amazon.com), IP SANs (2002) (also available at Amazon.com).