Auto-provisioning rises to top of user 'wish list'

By Heidi Biggar

Auto-provisioning may sound too good to be true, but it isn't. A variety of products are available to help end users streamline the time-consuming and tedious task of provisioning resources (e.g., heterogeneous disk arrays) within storage area networks (SANs), and many more are on the way.

The Enterprise Storage Group (ESG) analyst firm loosely breaks auto-provisioning tools into two types: "soft" and "hard." Soft provisioning refers to the virtual assignment of disk capacity from a common logical pool, and hard provisioning to the direct assignment of disk capacity (e.g., LUNs) to particular hosts.

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Both types of products address the growing problem of the provisioning window by reducing the time it takes to provision storage resources from days to hours, making it possible for fewer, less-highly-trained administrators to be put in charge of provisioning. Auto-provisioning has the added benefit of helping users make better use of their storage resources.

"It used to take multiple people with various skill levels a long time to provision storage in our SAN," says Ray Bourgoin, vice president of information resources at the Boston Stock Exchange. "Now we only have one platform to teach [and the actual provisioning process is much quicker than it used to be]."

Bourgoin, who is an early adopter of AppIQ's Solution Suite, used to use EMC ControlCenter to provision storage within his SAN environment. While his decision to implement the AppIQ suite was not motivated solely by the software's hard auto-provisioning capability, Bourgoin says auto-provisioning did play a key role.

The Boston Stock Exchange is in the midst of a significant consolidation project, which will ultimately involve both EMC and non-EMC arrays and possibly hundreds of servers. "Having a provisioning component that we can use across heterogeneous platforms is key," says Bourgoin. "It means we only have one platform to teach."

United Loyalty Services tells a similar story, reportedly reducing its provisioning window from 10 to 12 days to less than four hours by implementing the hard auto-provisioning capability that is integrated into the CreekPath Suite.

Hard auto-provisioning software is available from vendors such as AppIQ, CreekPath, EMC, InterSAN, and Storability; soft auto-provisioning tools are offered by a variety of virtualization providers, including DataCore, FalconStor, and Fujitsu Softek, according to the Enterprise Storage Group.

Soft and hard provisioning software can be used together or separately, with or without additional management software; however, provisioning software's capabilities are enhanced when used in conjunction with storage resource management (SRM) software, as well as other asset and performance management software (see figure on p. 1).

By definition, auto-provisioning tools must also include some type of workflow manager, or automated policy engine. The workflow manager, to be distinguished from more manual "wizards," allows administrators to establish best practices for provisioning capacity within a SAN based on pre-defined service-level agreements (SLAs) for participating storage/applications.

Workflow managers have been integrated into software packages from vendors such as AppIQ, CreekPath, InterSAN, and Storability (as a result of its acquisition of ProvisionSoft in July) and are offered as "front-ends" to various virtualization products, including Softek Virtualization.

"The time-consuming piece is finding the capacity within the SAN that meets the SLA for a particular application and then allocating that capacity to the application," says Nancy Marrone-Hurley, an analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group. "Auto-provisioning tools provide the capacity, but they don't necessarily tell you how you're using the capacity. You have to combine SRM capabilities and auto-provisioning to more effectively manage your resources."

"There's a huge advantage of using both types of software together," says Karen Dutch, vice president of product management at Fujitsu Softek.

For example, the company's Softek Storage Manager allows users to look inside applications to see what capacity is actually being used; Softek Provisioner, which is built on top of the Softek virtualization platform, allocates capacity from the storage pool among applications based on set policies, explains Dutch.

"The provisioning window is the problem," agrees Christina Mercier, chief technology officer at InterSAN. "The only way to improve utilization rates is to provision all the time, [but in a way that doesn't impact the SAN]."

The objective is to give applications only as much capacity as they need and to give it to them right when they need it, says Mercier. And one way to do that is to automate and manage the entire storage services life cycle—from planning to implementing, provisioning, and monitoring—and that involves multiple software components.

Among the new features in Version 2.5 of InterSAN's Pathline software is the ability to automate and manage the entire storage services life cycle, which involves both provisioning and SRM.

CreekPath also believes the way to improve resource utilization while decreasing management costs is to tie the various asset and performance management components (e.g., SRM, storage network management, provisioning, etc.) together and then drive them through an integrated workflow manager, which is customized to meet individual business needs.

To that end, CreekPath earlier this month introduced CreekPath Suite 3.0. New to the release is an analytical engine, which takes holistic knowledge of the system and ties it to specific application business objectives, says Scott Hansbury, vice president of marketing and business development at CreekPath.

"We wanted to know what makes an application tick and [to be able to do things like identifying 'hot spots' and [to tune applications to actual business processes], and to do that we needed an analytical engine," explains Hansbury.

While it isn't necessary for users to implement both hard and soft auto-provisioning tools, using the two in combination has benefits—particularly for vendors. Because soft auto-provisioning tools are based on virtualization platforms, they are able to mask some of the eccentricities of individual storage systems—something hard auto-provisioning products alone can't ignore.

Vendors of hard auto-provisioning solutions, such as AppIQ, are also banking on the promise of the SMI-S management standard, recognizing that widespread vendor compliance with this standard could have a significant effect on software development costs and time by reducing vendor dependence on API swaps.

On the flip side, there are some draw-backs to implementing pure soft auto-provisioning. "Not everyone is interested in just grabbing capacity from a common storage pool," explains Marrone-Hurley. "Hard provisioning, unlike soft auto-provisioning, lets users determine where the LUNs are coming from, [which, among other things, can provide a level of security.]"

Some vendors of hard auto-provisioning tools (such as AppIQ) say that, while soft provisioning is a means of reducing SAN complexity and improving overall utilization, it does not obviate the need for hard auto-provisioning.

"Hard and soft auto-provisioning are not discrete or exclusive. You still need both," contends Ash Ashutosh, executive vice president and CTO at AppIQ.

Which type of auto-provisioning tool you need boils down to how you want to manage your storage environment and how much you're willing to pay.

You also have to factor in the costs (e.g., labor costs, over-provisioning costs, and other business-related costs) of not implementing auto-provisioning, according to Marrone-Hurley.

Because of their multi-component makeup, hard provisioning products tend to be more costly than soft provisioning tools, running in some cases more than $200,000 for just 1TB of managed storage, according to Marrone-Hurley.

Today, the vast majority (more than 98% by some vendor accounts) of provisioning is done manually through hard provisioning.

This article was originally published on September 01, 2003