SAN management: The good, the bad, the ugly

End-user adoption of SAN management software has been slow, but advances such as integration with SRM may improve the picture.

By Alan R. Earls

SAN management is something that almost all storage professionals think is a good idea. After all, as SANs have become bigger, more complex, and often more heterogeneous, the task of managing them has moved way past the stage where seat-of-the-pants instinct alone can do the job.

Yet end-user adoption of SAN management software has been surprisingly low, and vendor market share is disproportionately in favor of one vendor—EMC. In fact, last year, EMC had about 80% of the SAN management software market, according to Gartner Inc., an IT consulting firm. Other players in the SAN management software space include vendors such as AppIQ, CreekPath, Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems (which resells AppIQ software), IBM, InterSAN (OEM only), McData, Softek, Storability, Sun, and Veritas.

Gartner has identified a number of basic and advanced functions that can comprise SAN management (see box on p. 22).

With an apparent need for SAN management, why hasn't it caught on?

According to Gartner analyst Bob Passmore, most SAN management products are inadequate for large, complex SANs and are "spotty" in their breadth of support for heterogeneous platforms and SAN components.

But behind those problems and low sales numbers for most vendors, SAN management is emerging as a much-needed and valued capability that is struggling to find a place in budget-strapped IT environments. In addition, IT storage managers may be waiting for the longer-term promise of wider-ranging, more-intelligent storage resource management (SRM) software that will be integrated with SAN management software.

"In some respects the market, or at least the products, haven't moved far over the last year," says Passmore. Over the past year, InterSAN left the end-user side of the market to concentrate on OEM sales, while Hitachi Data Systems joined the market on the strength of code from AppIQ that Hitachi is adopting as part of its TrueNorth storage management initiative. In addition to those business developments, Passmore says that advancements in features, functionality, and array support have been modest and "most products still have holes in their heterogeneous vendor coverage."

Passmore cautions that he hasn't done a detailed tally recently but he estimates that EMC still has the largest market share by a long shot, followed by Veritas, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. "It goes down rapidly from there, with some of the other vendors having as few as 20 licensees," he says. And Passmore notes that the number of SAN management software licenses sold represents an embarrassingly small fraction of the total installed SAN base.

One of the changes this past year has been a reduction in the substantial price differences between vendors' products. "This year we saw more-consistent pricing by vendors even though there are still big differences in how pricing is computed," says Passmore. For example, pricing can be based on storage capacity, the number of switches, or even the types of servers.

Passmore says the good news is that most of the products are fairly effective, at least for users seeking simple SAN management. "They typically provide a view of what is going on [in the SAN], and you can use them to control switches," he says. What is missing from many of the software packages is a lack of support for heterogeneous devices. Many vendors are still launching element managers, which do not really provide a common view, "or they are waiting for SMI-S [Storage Management Initiative Specification], which means we will see results around Christmas of 2027," Passmore quips.

Most analysts believe it will be some time before wide-scale, heterogeneous SAN management is a reality. The challenge is that in a complex SAN you need a lot of information about how the storage is being used and who is using it, as well as performance data. That, says Passmore, tends to move users toward SRM software, which also has shortcomings.

At last month's Gartner PlanetStorage conference, Passmore noted that most SRM applications cannot show all five views of storage: physical, virtual, file, database, and backup. And most—although not all—SRM applications are still limited to reporting.

Almost all of the larger storage management software vendors have plans to integrate SRM and SAN management. Some have already integrated their products and do not sell them separately (i.e., CreekPath and Storability), while others take a more modular approach.

What should you look for? Passmore recommends starting with a list of basic functions. "We define SAN management as managing the fabric and edge, including host bus adapters [HBAs] and arrays, so you should look for configuration monitoring, discovery, rendering, reporting, and maybe chargeback," he says.

Even with a full roster of features, Passmore warns that SAN management products still won't show you much about how storage is used, just how it is carved up.

That overriding sense that something is awry in SAN management is shared in part by other analysts. For example, Data Mobility Group's John Webster says that "survey data suggests that the user community feels that SAN management leaves a lot to be desired and doesn't necessarily meet their expectations. It's not necessarily my own perception—because I see some fairly sophisticated offerings out there—but perhaps the vendors' sales forces aren't doing a good job of getting the message out."

Webster recommends looking for "lots of instrumentation for measuring and truly understanding what's going on in the SAN environment."

Webster is most impressed by vendors such as AppIQ and CreekPath. "I like the companies that offer more of an applications focus and are going after application awareness and trying to drive that down through the storage," he says. Webster also notes that the ability to get clues from the application environment will help both storage administrators and storage management applications to provision, fix, and provide quality-of-service on an application-by-application basis.

Webster also questions the trend toward integration of SAN management with SRM. "What you sometimes wind up with is a very proprietary approach to management, which is why we really need SMI-S so we can get to a high level of integration with a common interface."

Pricing is also an issue for Webster. Typically, he observes, the most useful and highly functional products have the biggest price tags. Over time, though, he expects that to change because vendors will want to broaden their customer base. If they are going to successfully invade the small to medium-sized business (SMB) space, for example, they will need to drop prices sharply while maintaining most of the functionality, he says. Of course, that's often a formula for disaster if the lower-priced product ends up cannibalizing sales of the higher-priced ones.

Another factor Webster identifies as a barrier to end-user adoption is the problem of agent proliferation. "I hear this all the time from users," he says. The problem is that users get concerned when management applications (especially multiple applications) want to post agents within the host environment. "They have agents for backup apps and archiving and other things, too, which just isn't scalable: It adds management complexity on top of management complexity," he says.

The Evaluator Group's Randy Kerns takes a more optimistic tone, noting that the majority of vendors are working hard to combine SAN management with SRM. Indeed, Kerns suggests that by year-end, integration could be the rule rather than the exception. "The vendors using a common repository approach are best positioned to make this transition," he says. In other words, the product is able to reveal what has been discovered—such as topology—as well as other information like asset tracking (in the form of a database). EMC and AppIQ both take this approach, according to Kerns.

What to look for? Kerns says it is useful to think through your SRM needs now and in the future and then see whether the vendor you are considering has a road map that supports those needs. "Most of them understand the issue of heterogeneity," he says, "but they have to implement SMI-S, which is the answer to heterogeneous management. I think the vendors are committed; it's just a matter of when they will have it."

Hermant Kurande, chief technology officer at Storability, agrees that SMI-S is critical, but he says that too many vendors are dragging their feet in terms of SMI-S compliance. Therefore, with APIs still key, he predicts that SAN management, at least as a stand-alone function, will be dominated by hardware vendors. What's more, he says, SAN management is a stopgap approach, which is why Storability is focusing on SRM capabilities that include SAN management.

For now, most SAN administrators still use device, or element, managers to manage their SANs in a piecemeal fashion. However, "users are starting to realize that the element managers that came with their switch, for instance, aren't really what they are looking for," says Kevin Coughlin, a senior product manager at Veritas. So, as that slow realization permeates through the user community, there will be more interest in SAN management software and, according to Danny Milrad, senior product marketing manager at Veritas, more attention paid to the next level of management, which will combine SRM and SAN management.

"We've defined services and workflow and integrated that with storage operations by way of a command center, which allows users to do SAN management and get an end-to-end data-path view from an application perspective," says Milrad.

On a final note, most analysts advise not paying attention to market share numbers for SAN management software vendors because it's likely that many of the SAN management applications that users have bought—particularly those from the large disk-array vendors—are probably just sitting on the shelf.

Alan R. Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, MA.

A different approach to traditional SAN management

By Heidi Biggar

Recognizing that the troubles most storage administrators encounter with SANs today are the direct result of not knowing what is going on within their networks (as opposed to inherent problems with underlying hardware or software), Onaro recently began shipping SANscreen, predictive change management software that the company believes will enable storage administrators to build bigger, more-effective storage networks.

"There are problems with SANs, but most problems stem from the fact that storage administrators don't know what is going on in their environments," says Shai Scharf, CEO of the two-year-old Boston-based start-up. "It's the perplexity, not the complexity, that is the problem with SANs today."

While first-generation SAN management tools do a good job of provisioning and monitoring at the device level and providing storage administrators with a variety of reports about storage usage (e.g., quotas, utilization, and trending), Scharf says they do little in the way of helping storage administrators find problems before they occur, which keeps administrators from building larger SANs or forces them to build islands of smaller SANs.

SANs often remain small for the simple reason that storage administrators can't get a handle on all the access paths, Scharf contends. "A 60-server environment has more than 2 million potential access paths, and storage administrators can't solve this problem manually."

The result, says Scharf, is unnecessarily high operating costs (due to long or error-prone change cycles), a general loss of confidence in SAN technology (which leads to delays in SAN projects), and potentially higher risk exposure.

Onaro's SANscreen software is designed to continuously and automatically analyze access paths, relationships, and inter-dependencies in a SAN environment. This allows storage administrators to proactively discover and map access paths and logical attributes; plan, simulate, and validate any changes before they are actually made; and then proactively track and validate changes.

SANscreen is agent-less software that runs out of the data path. The company claims an installation time of less than one hour. The software can run separately or in combination with other management software. Onaro demonstrated the software running with EMC's ControlCenter storage management software at EMC's annual technology summit in April.

SANscreen pricing is based on the size of the SAN and averages from $100 to $125 per SAN switch port.

SAN management functionality

Basic SAN management

  • Discovery
  • Visualization
  • Event management
  • Zoning administration and LUN masking/binding
  • Launching of element managers
  • Asset management
  • Administrative security
  • Reporting

Beyond the basics

  • Policy-based management
  • Service-level management and chargeback
  • SAN design and implementation support
  • Extended integration
Source: Gartner Inc.

This article was originally published on July 01, 2004