Policies automate storage management

Storage administrators are borrowing concepts used by IT departments in a variety of industries in order to automate time-consuming tasks.

By Jean-Yves Tripier

Storage professionals have become accustomed to fighting fires. Even the basic task of provisioning a request for storage can become a headache for over-stressed IT departments. Whether it is crashing networks, conflicting backup requests, or lost data, current technologies behind today's storage systems can be unpredictable and are often unable to cope with changing demands.

With today's infinite need for storage and finite administration resources, storage management professionals must not only anticipate and prepare for these fires, but also find cost-effective and easily integrated solutions to help put them out.

To solve this growing dilemma, storage professionals, recognizing the successes of other industries' IT departments, are beginning to use policy-based management applications to improve the way they manage and maintain their storage resources.

Many financial services companies' IT departments have already implemented applications designed to manage business policies in order to solve similar issues. Examining some of these cost- and resource-saving implementations such as automating repetitive tasks and dynamically managing resource allocation and quotas will help give storage IT departments a better understanding of how they can improve productivity and bridge the gap between exponential requests and limited resources.

Policy-based management

Policy-based management simplifies the management of a task by establishing policies that address decisions required in likely situations: For example, if ABC happens, then do XYZ. To provision a request for storage, an administrator needs to decide which disk or tape to use.

Policies containing pre-defined allocation rules can provide recommendations as to the choice of resources (disk or tape) according to specific guidelines the company has in place. Automating this process simplifies and speeds up the administrator's task, while reducing the risk of human error.

Policy-based management, which relies on business rule technology, provides a way to easily automate storage processes, as well as to manage fast growing storage area networks (SANs).

Policies are time-based or event-based. In a SAN, they can be applied to manage authorization and access rights, priorities, allocation, routing, and quotas. Criteria set in the policy will include considering how critical the information is, or how often the company needs to retrieve the information. Other typical criteria include requirements on data replication and business continuity.

Across industries, IT departments have turned to policy-based management as a way to make their systems more agile and to create competitive advantage.

The issues faced by storage professionals—a challenging number of routine tasks to manage, increasingly limited headcount for an ever-increasing workload, and business continuity constraints—are common in other industries, most notably in financial services.

Lessons from the financial services industry

Today's finance and insurance firms are challenging their IT departments to become more agile, yet many of these institutions are burdened with legacy systems that are inflexible.

Often financial services companies' IT teams face dilemmas very similar to what storage administration teams experience:

  • Guaranteeing business continuity—Because downtime is so expensive, business continuity is critical;
  • Freezing of headcount—"Do more with less" has become a mandate; and
  • Thinking in terms of processes—Performance reviews are now based on progress made in tracking and eliminating redundant tasks, and improvements for spending less time handling routine issues.

Financial services institutions have turned to policy-based solutions to automate processes and regain flexibility. Policies are commonly used today in business-critical applications such as portfolio management and claims processing.

The cost and overhead reductions and increased operational efficiencies that financial services companies have realized through the use of policy-based management are a prime model for the storage industry. Automating time-consuming routine tasks and allocating resources based on policies are two examples of what can be applied to storage management.

Automating routine tasks

Insurance companies use policy-based management software to streamline their claims-processing software. Claims requests are received from call centers, fax, or the Internet and are processed by agents. Policy-based management software has standardized how claims are handled and has allowed automating all basic routing decisions, resulting in faster processing of requests.

Because the routing part of the request is automated, the same number of people can handle more requests. Agents are able to spend more time handling cost-intensive exceptions while the routine, repetitive tasks are automated in a secure way.

The storage industry has the same opportunities for improvement. Partial automation is a solution that removes time-consuming, repetitive tasks from highly skilled administrators, allowing them more time for more-complex tasks that require their skills.

Provisioning requests is a significant part of a storage administrator's daily workload, and automating the routine part of it can show immediate results in the average time of a processed request.

Allocating resources

Another way to automate routine tasks is to implement event-driven process management based on pre-defined scenarios. This approach has become commonplace in the management of stock portfolios where online users put in place a strategy to manage their stocks and set up automatic buying or selling orders based on whether the stock price goes under or over a specific amount. When that pre-defined event occurs, an automated transaction is executed.

In storage management, automating pre-defined tasks helps administrators become more proactive by ensuring that when certain conditions are met—based on usage, availability, or capacity—the right sequence of operations will be executed. This is not only a beneficial approach to anticipating and reducing risk; it has also proven to be a significant solution for financial services' IT teams interested in managing their day-to-day decisions more effectively.

Because storage networks are dynamic, there is a need to react to events based on capacity and usage of resources. Pre-defining scenarios is a simple step to become proactive and prepared. If anticipated events occur, the chain of decisions to be made is pre-defined and can be automated. If a priority request for storage space occurs and the disks are 90% full, then recommend shifting to another storage unit.

For storage administrators, automating routine decisions could provide new tools to handle allocation and manage quotas. It doesn't imply a modification of current working environments because the IT team maintains the ability to decide whether to automatically implement allocation decisions. When different teams handle allocation and implementation, the automation process can simply create the allocation order that will be executed by the specific implementation team.

Financial IT departments have demonstrated that policy-based management technology can easily be implemented to automate and optimize repetitive routing and allocation decisions. No other solution can so easily and cost-effectively automate mission-critical tasks, support limited IT departments and existing infrastructure, and improve the management of data storage.

Financial services, insurance, manufacturing, healthcare, telecom, and utilities companies have all successfully automated mission-critical tasks, with flexible policy-based management, leading to reduced human errors, downtime and costs, and increased efficiencies.

Policy-based management should become a primary feature requirement when considering storage resource management and data management applications. The time and cost-savings typically ensure a short-term payback, while helping storage professionals put out the fires.

Jean-Yves Tripier is director of marketing and strategic alliances in the Communications and Media Division of ILOG (www.ilog.com) in Mountain View, CA.

For more information about storage management, see the following articles that have appeared in

"ARM software saves time, money," November 2002, p. 1

"Applications-centric path to managing storage," November 2002, p. 20

"Providing storage intelligence with automated policies," November 2002, p. 44

"Managing storage: A plan of attack," October 2002, p. 40

"Start-ups tackle automated storage management," September 2002, p. 1

"End users attest to the benefits of SRM," September 2002, p. 28

This article was originally published on April 01, 2003