A balanced approach for managing storage networks

A solid SAN management strategy requires planning, staff allocation and, where possible, the use of existing tools and skill sets.

By David Merrill

In the past few years, there has been a steady rise in the use of network-connected storage with the widespread installation of storage area networks (SANs) and network- attached storage (NAS). Pooled storage reduces connectivity complexity, increases resource sharing, and enables efficient management of storage systems. Storage networks can allow IT departments to manage more capacity with existing staff at a lower overall cost.

But many organizations make the mistake of installing a new storage infrastructure without thinking about how it will be managed or by whom. The benefits of SAN efficiency do not automatically occur with the installation of a fabric switch or enterprise storage system. Strategic planning for management is essential. One commonly cited statistic indicates that the cost of managing an enterprise storage system can run as high as eight times per year the original purchase price of the system. Consequently, it is necessary to develop a management strategy to achieve the benefits and efficiencies of a storage network.

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A sound SAN management strategy requires a balanced approach that takes into consideration not only automation tools, but also provisioning for the processes and people necessary to manage large pools of data. Taking a balanced approach to managing storage network resources will minimize exposure to common SAN deployment risks. A balanced approach maximizes ROI and can ensure optimal scalability, flexibility, and availability of data.

A comprehensive SAN management initiative is built on staff skills, automation tools, and best practices. Some, if not all, best practices that are necessary often already exist in the organization. For example, management procedures can be imported from other areas of the IT environment to assist in the management of SANs, with or without the assistance of new storage management software. This article outlines four basic steps for a balanced approach to networked storage management.

Step 1: Plan for what you have to control and administer-now and in the future.

To create an effective SAN implementation, management cannot be an afterthought of the installation. Instead, it needs to be an integral component of the storage architecture and planning process. By providing a definitive understanding of the SAN infrastructure and matching it to real-world policies and staff procedures, IT managers can create a complete management framework that will enable optimal efficiency.

The three foundational components of a SAN management plan should include

  • Organization of storage network management-Specialists trained in shared services methods are the key to an effective storage network deployment.
  • Operational best practices-Where possible, apply company-proven processes and staff skills. These practices are often borrowed and modified from other parts of the IT organization.
  • Management automation-Automation tools can speed the overall process when a solid management framework is already in place.

Also, it is crucial to consider where resources will need to be allocated in the overall SAN strategy. Should funds be spent on staff training, consultants, software products, or re-definition of internal processes?

Step 2: Determine what areas of pooled storage need management, by whom and when.

Within the storage network domain, three abstractions can be defined to describe a SAN management approach:

  • Component level-This encompasses all of the discrete SAN components, including hardware and software. Each component usually comes with its own API or management toolset, and understanding the management specifics of each component is critical.
  • All three perspectives must be understood and defined when planning, because the topology and type of storage network to be built will dictate the overall manageability of the SAN.

    Step 3: Re-align existing management practices and apply them (when practical) to SAN management.

    Regardless of the storage protocol or topology, the basics of good management practices need to be provisioned for a storage network. Many IT departments have already instituted management processes that can be re-deployed in a storage network.

    Mainframe operations staff can be a great source for process definition in the areas of 24x7 operations, capacity planning, storage policies and procedures, and storage trend analysis.

    LAN or WAN groups often have proven methods for topology management and design, switch configuration processes, and change control that can be modified from the router-world to the Fibre Channel fabric-world.

    Software groups usually have version and change control processes in place. There are new software components in a SAN, and keeping all the elements in sync is essential in complex fabrics. Windows NT and Unix system administration groups may have formal management processes that can be useful, since most SANs connect with these systems.

    In some cases, adapting existing practices and investing in staff skills can be just as important as investing in new SAN management software.

    Step 4: Create a balanced SAN management strategy.

    One of the most common questions during a SAN planning project or implementation is "What kind of organizational structure will I need to support the SAN?" Typically, medium-to-large IT departments are organized along platform lines, with various groups taking responsibility for storage operations that relate to a specific platform. But with advanced storage architectures, it is more effective to separate storage management from server administration functions.

    Ideas for a SAN organization start with the creation of a dedicated storage team, which often necessitates fundamental changes in providing service accountability and control of IT storage resources. The storage team should have a broad range of IT operational skills, including network management, database administration, Unix and Windows NT/2000 administration, and heterogeneous storage management. Companies may have to staff their storage teams in the following categories:

    • A SAN architect may have leadership responsibilities for the SAN team and overall storage strategy, as well as accountability, to peer server groups;
    • A switch infrastructure specialist is responsible for configuration, port assignments, switch software, and possibly, zoning, topology management, and SAN extension design;
    • The storage administrator is responsible for management and configuration of storage systems;
    • Cabling and host bus adapter (HBA) specialists handle cable-plant management, patch panels, physical facilities, and server planning for the installation of HBAs and related host software; and
    • A SAN software architect is a knowledgeable source regarding all storage and SAN software from the host, HBA, switch vendors, and storage vendors.

    Effective SAN management comes down to applying the right resources to the area of SAN management that will yield the best return. When a balanced approach is taken, IT managers don't need to wait for a "silver bullet" in the form of a SAN management software suite. Instead, they can focus on building a complete SAN management initiative based on staff skills, automation tools, and best practices that, in many cases, may already exist.

    David Merrill is a SAN architect at Hitachi Data Systems (www.hds.com) in Dallas, TX.

    This article was originally published on August 01, 2002