Providing storage intelligence with automated policies

The best advice is to automate as many policies as possible, which may require a variety of tools.

By Nancy Marrone

Finding an enterprise storage management (ESM) software vendor that doesn't claim to have automated policy management today is difficult. Virtually every major vendor has introduced an ESM strategy with automated policy management as a key component.

According to the marketing hype, administrators no longer need to touch their storage or storage networks, because the management applications will automate all of the policies and procedures, enforce service level agreements (SLAs), and generally make the storage administrator's job a "walk in the park." And application administrators only have to press a button and ample amounts of high-performance RAID volumes will be available over super-fast, highly redundant networks.

Sounds great, but the ability of management applications to fully automate storage policies is still in its infancy. However, recent advances will allow automatic provisioning of storage and networks, automated business continuance, and automated data life-cycle management. The problem is that many users can't see why they would need to implement these solutions because they already have policies in place. Will spending up to hundreds of thousands of dollars really get you anything? In short, yes. Automating storage policies ensures consistent implementation of policies, speeds tasks, reduces downtime, and lowers the overall cost of ownership of the storage environment.

What are storage policies?

When we discuss storage policies, in reality we're discussing policies for the entire enterprise. Storage policies determine which applications get what level of data protection and availability (storage SLAs) and which business unit gets first priority when requesting additional storage capacity. Storage policies are also a critical piece of overall disaster-recovery and business-continuance plans. Although there are many areas of the enterprise (e.g., telecommunications, Internet access, and power) involved in a disaster-recovery plan, the bottom line is that application availability depends on data availability, so, if the storage isn't available, neither is the business. Thus, storage policies driving backup, replication, and availability are critical to the survival of an organization.

Administrators may call their storage policies processes or procedures, but regardless of what they're called, chances are an organization has storage policies in place. Whether they are effective is something that just about every organization should question and continuously evaluate and test. Too often, companies find that their disaster-recovery plans are inadequate. In many cases, the problems are workflow related: No one is quite sure which step comes next. Automation tools could be extremely effective in eliminating those types of problems.

Before policy automation solutions are installed, we suggest administrators implement the following steps:

  • Evaluate current policies;
  • Assess current storage environment (using storage management software);
  • Redefine policies in line with business requirements (when necessary); and
  • Implement automation solutions.

Evaluating storage policies

Although we advocate using automated policies, don't jump in without first assessing your storage environment and the policies that are currently in place. Chances are those policies have been passed on over the years and may not be effective for your current storage environment. In many instances, policies were put in place with no consideration of the relative importance of one type of data versus another to the company's bottom line. Many companies simply back up everything, rather than determining if it's really necessary. We've heard plenty of stories of user data being stored for years after an employee has left simply because there was no policy to remove the files of exiting employees. And as mentioned above, not testing if the policies truly are effective can result in extensive downtime. Over the years, not evaluating storage policies can end up being very costly.

Administrators should evaluate current policies based on criteria that affect their business operations. They need to answer questions like: Do these policies enable the most critical applications to recover before others? Do they support different levels of availability and performance for particular applications? Do they take into consideration the life cycle of the data (i.e., does some data lose its relevance after a short period of time and therefore does not need to be on primary storage)? Should certain business units receive priorities such as type of storage or whose capacity demands are met first?

Assess the storage environment

As the current policies are being evaluated and new policies are being developed to support the business, administrators should assess the capability of their current environment to actually support those policies. More often than not, when posed with the question, "Do you know exactly what your storage environment looks like?", administrators answer no. There are multiple storage management solutions available today that can help determine not only what physical assets are available, but also how they are being used and who is using them.

Storage network management (SNM) solutions (from companies such as BMC Software, EMC, Fujitsu Softek, McData, and Veritas) provide the ability to discover, map, and monitor physical resources on the storage network, often down to the LUN level. SNM software provides information on what resources are available and how they are configured and connected in the environment.

Storage resource management (SRM) software (from companies such as Astrum, IBM, NTP Software, Precise Software, Tek-Tools, and TeraCloud) shows how the assets are being used from a file and user perspective. These tools present reports on which clients are using what files, what files are redundant or unnecessary, and where files are being stored. Not only do these tools give administrators a view into usage patterns by user, group, or business unit, but they also enable reclamation of wasted space (in some instances, terabytes). Policies can be set on types of files allowed, how much space is given to users or groups, and even to take some type of action when a file has not been accessed for a specified period of time.

Backup reporting tools can also help administrators understand the success rate of backups, why failures occurred, and how much data is being backed up over time. Combined with SRM applications that can determine what files are being backed up, these tools can eliminate backup window issues and ensure data availability. Examples of vendors that offer backup reporting tools include Bocada, Fujitsu Softek, StorageNetworks, and Vyant Technologies.

Assessing both storage resources and business requirements as they relate to storage will most likely result in modification or development of new storage policies. Executive management may need to get involved to make decisions on what business units, applications, or users should take precedence in the organization. It is important to include continuous testing and re-evaluation of these policies as part of the overall procedures.

Implement automation solutions

Not all storage policies can or should be automated. However, the above assessments should take into consideration which functions should be automated and which should remain "manual." Although storage policy automation technology is just beginning to become a reality, many of the software management solutions mentioned above have policy engines that are capable of automating actions based on user-defined policies.

Quota management (i.e., limiting the amount of data or type of files that can be stored) is available in SRM applications. Automated provisioning of capacity and ensuring of SLAs is available through SRM (and some SNM) applications. Automated data management solutions from vendors such as Arkivio, FilePath, KOM, and Legato (OTG) allow users to set policies that determine when and where data gets moved based on different criteria. Invio Software offers a storage process management solution that enables users to automate existing (and new) processes regardless of what management software is being used.

New intelligent switching platforms will also play a role in automating storage policies, as some of these switches will host storage automation software. Others will have intelligence built in, which will sense what type of storage is attached to what port and will connect a host or application according to a pre-defined SLA.

Many of the large storage management software vendors and a handful of start-ups aim to provide all of the elements of the enterprise storage management model with policy engines that will tie them together to provide fully automated storage management (automated provisioning, data movement, replication, and backup, etc.).

One thing to remember when evaluating automation solutions is that there should be a way to check if the automation process actually performed as intended. Look for software that provides reports and alerts on the automation process itself, ensuring events are actually being implemented and completed.

Most of the solutions have manual intervention/override options that allow users to take over the processes at any time (or for that matter, to move gradually into full automation as they get more comfortable with the concept).

The bottom line

Many options are available to automate storage policies and processes. Administrators should look at the possibility of saving management dollars by automating at least the most mundane and time-consuming tasks.

Eventually, switches will play a big role in automation, because the goal is to put much of the management intelligence in the fabric. The end game is a self-provisioning, intelligent, data-managing network that will be able to determine priorities based on data and storage criteria.

We will get there, but in the meantime, great strides are being made to offload many storage processes to software, and users should consider implementing automated policy management today. By streamlining management through automation and constantly evaluating the effectiveness of storage policies, companies can significantly reduce costs, increase productivity, and ensure data availability.

Nancy Marrone is a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group (www.enter prisestoragegroup.com) in Milford, MA.

This article was originally published on November 01, 2002