Storage-specific teams a necessity

As the management of storage supersedes management of servers, system administrators may need to morph into system/storage administrators.

By Greg ("Shoe") Schuweiler

The tasks of a system administrator's job are changing. From small to large environments, system administrators used to spend their days (and nights) managing multiple servers with locally attached disks. We tuned servers, managed disks and data, and backed up the data to locally attached tape drives. The failure of a disk usually meant an outage while the failed disk was replaced, formatted, file systems built, and data restored from tape. Outages were a fact of life that both users and administrators accepted. These were not always the good old days.

Now we purchase wads of storage that are racked into data centers in 0.5TB and 1TB clumps (a techie term) or disk arrays that are large monolithic blobs (another techie term) that snap together like Lego building blocks, adding storage by the tens of terabytes. Our businesses' quest for acquiring data makes a salmon's run for its spawning place upstream look like a Sunday stroll around a pond. Because of numerous regulatory reasons, business policies, or both, data is held onto longer with more copies being kept. Queries and processing against this data takes place 24x7, shrinking our backup windows from all night to nothing.

A good part of our time is now spent managing storage and fulfilling requests for more space. As the reliability of server hardware and operating systems improves, management of these servers will soon be superseded by the management of storage and the data that is on that storage. We are trying to keep up with servers, NAS, SANs, switches, disk arrays, operating system changes, firmware levels, virtualization, consolidation, user demands, and scores of other things that are involved in the data acquisition, processing, and storage environment.

The time has come for system administrators to seriously look at a fork in the road that is opening up a whole new career path-the management of storage and data. I propose we name this position "system/storage administrator" or "system/storage architect."

One of the first things on your agenda will be to influence management all the way to the CIO that the need for storage-specific professionals or teams is a necessity to help ensure business continuance.

Most of the discussions that you will have with management about forming a storage-centric positions or teams should center on two things: 1) saving the business money in the long run; and 2) providing a high level of data reliability; in other words, the data is there when it needs to be for users.

While a failed processor can usually be readily replaced and operations continued almost immediately, a failed storage resource requires replacement followed by time-consuming restoration of data, all too often with some loss of recent changes to that data. As a result, storage management has grown in visibility and importance.

In addition, the fraction of the purchase price of a computer system that is represented by the storage component has grown over time to the point that the storage component is often half or more of the total price. Beyond the purchase price of storage, the total cost of owning storage has become a significant part of the cost of maintaining the IT infrastructure. In other words, acquisition cost is a small portion of the total cost of ownership (TCO) of storage over its lifetime.

Responding to these trends, the IT community has started to view storage as a resource that should be purchased and managed independently of the computer systems that it serves. The IT community has also increasingly come to view storage as a resource that should be shared among computer systems. These changes demand more-focused attention on storage, which will lead to reduced costs and higher levels of service, as well as more flexibility through the sharing of storage resources. This, in turn, will allow storage professionals or teams to provide improved quality and response time as business needs change.

As storage systems become shared resources, more emphasis must be placed on reliability, scalability, manageability (to provide high levels of service and reduction in operating expenses), and standards (to avoid excessive vendor-dependence).

Storage professionals or teams should have three primary goals that are intertwined:

  • Data protection (including security);
  • Reduced TCO through optimization; and
  • Data availability.

The loss of data in any business should be considered intolerable. Depending on the importance and content of the data, the storage team will need to work with application owners, legal departments, and even marketing to determine the level of protection different types of data will require. Critical data may require RAID 5 with replication to a remote data center, whereas views from databases that can be rebuilt may be implemented in RAID 0 for quick access. Furthermore, the data must be protected from accidental or malicious access from host systems or individuals.

The storage team can reduce TCO by optimizing hardware utilization, backup software, and the management software of storage network components. Since the storage team is focused on storage, it is neutral to server vendors. This also allows the OS and systems administrators to concentrate on their core business areas of responsibilities.

The availability of data must meet the needs of the business. Storage administrators need to work with systems administrators to provide the required data availability for applications and departments to provide business continuity.

To help address all of these issues, I strongly suggest that you consider joining the Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP) user organization to glean information from your peers for both technical and non-technical issues. In addition, there are some great discussion forums on the ASNP Website. For more information, visit www.asnp.org.

Greg ("Shoe") Schuweiler has worked as a consultant, embedded software designer, and Oracle DBA and has been in the Unix systems administration area for the past eight years. He is a member of the Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP) and can be contacted at gregs@ansp.org.

This article was originally published on December 01, 2004