Easing storage management headaches

As the amount of data on MasterCard International Inc.'s storage-area network (SAN) has grown over the past three years, managing those storage components and associated applications has been a challenge. The Purchase, N.Y.-based financial services company hopes someday to use a single storage management system that will allow it to plug in products from different vendors in order to get best-of-breed products at the most competitive prices.

"The struggle is trying to convince the different storage vendors, whether it's Sun, EMC or IBM," that IT managers don't want to stay with one particular vendor's products for everything, says Jim Hull, vice president of engineering services at MasterCard.

"I'm pretty selfish. I want to get whatever's the best for MasterCard, and I want to be able to plug and play the best from EMC, Sun, IBM, DataCore or whoever it may be," Hull says.

Vendor Foot-Dragging

For several years, users have been pressuring storage vendors to adopt standards and share their application program interfaces (API) more freely so that multivendor networks can interoperate seamlessly and in a more automated way. But users say vendors are dragging their feet in more widely disseminating their APIs and in adopting new standards.

"Do I think that vendors go out of their way to make interoperability happen? Not really. Especially vendors like IBM and EMC," says William Ubelacker, director of systems services at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. in Burlington, N.J.

"We spend a lot of our time improving interoperability on end-to-end configurations, but trying to cover the waterfront on all configurations a customer asks for is sort of an open-ended equation," counters Clodoaldo Barrera, director of technology strategy for IBM's Storage Systems Group. He says that the real problem has been a lack of standards clear enough to guarantee product interoperability.

"We're open to swapping APIs with any vendor out there," says EMC Corp. spokesman Adrian Ragasta. He says EMC has been pushing the industry's interoperability levels with its Widesky initiative, aimed at tying together multivendor storage networks through API-sharing partnerships. EMC's AutoIS software suite is at the heart of that effort.

Although storage management tools are growing in sophistication, with features such as policy-based storage allocation, automated backup, mirroring and snapshots, IT managers like Ubelacker say they want to be able to manage all those features from a single console on a single platform, such as IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager, Veritas Software Corp.'s Veritas Foundation Suite or Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC's ControlCenter/Open Edition. They also want to be able to plug in software from any other vendors -- whether industry leaders or start-up companies -- and still control it through that same interface.

Vendors have made only limited strides. For example, MasterCard relies on ControlCenter, but EMC shares the APIs with only a limited set of selected vendors. That list currently includes Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM and Network Appliance Inc.

"Those different vendors will need to do more [than] exchange APIs. I believe customers like us will have to push these vendors to come up with such standards," says Ed Smart, vice president of support services at MasterCard.

"We're just not there yet," says Nancy Marrone, a senior analyst at The Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass. "I think the main issue is [vendors] truly giving up their APIs." Eventually, she predicts, a few popular APIs will emerge and most vendors will conform to those.

In the meantime, some companies, including Burlington Coat Factory, have standardized on a single vendor's storage management products. Ubelacker chose products from Hitachi Data Systems Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. For the time being, that has simplified integration problems on his mostly direct-attached environment, he says.

But even managing one vendor's offerings can get complicated, experts say. For example, an enterprise that standardized a few years ago on HP's SureStore drives would have used EMC's Symmetrix storage array as part of HP's Unix server installations. But in 1999, HP switched and began reselling storage arrays from Hitachi. In addition, corporate mergers, such as the HP/Compaq merger, may force together disparate storage networks and affect future product development and support.

The result, analysts say, is that an enterprise may go from dealing with one vendor's architecture to dealing with several that don't work well together and require broader staff expertise to manage.

Getting the Message

Storage vendors say they hear users' concerns about the sharing of APIs and the development of standards. Ultimately, the industry won't be able to move forward without agreeing on standards, says Paul Borrill, chief technology officer at Veritas Software Corp. in Mountain View, Calif.

To that end, a consortium of vendors recently submitted a 350-page API specification, called Bluefin, to the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), the Mountain View-based industry group formed to promote storage networking standards.

Bluefin advocates using the Common Information Model (CIM) and the Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standards to allow device discovery, monitoring and management.

At least one vendor has already announced support for Bluefin in upcoming products. After several delays, IBM has announced that Storage Tank, a file system for accessing, saving, sharing and managing files on storage networks, will support CIM when it's released in the second half of next year.

Storage Tank will offer access to file-level or block-level data through the CIM interface, allowing network administrators a single management point over an enterprisewide storage infrastructure.

Hitachi and Sun say they are also working on products based on the CIM/WEBM Bluefin standard.

Given the current state of affairs, some users are staying on the sidelines. Douglas Roberts, manager of systems services at grocery chain Hannaford Bros. Co., in Scarborough, Maine, says he's taking a "sit back and wait" approach to storage management software. He says he will hold off on purchases and look into SAN management software again next year.

"Everybody's products out there support a handful of others, but not everything. If you require another product based on commodity pricing, then that's not supported by the other vendor," Roberts says. "Each vendor wants to do their own thing."


Vendors Cast Bluefin Standard

The newly released storage management specification holds promise, but compliant products are still years away.

The SNIA's recently released Bluefin API specification reflects more than just an agreement to support common standards such as CIM and WBEM for storage management.

"Bluefin is both an architecture and a set of APIs," says Veritas CTO Paul Borrill "[It] gives you a model with what to expect functionally and how to express that using APIs."

Roger Reich, chairman of the SNIA's Partner Development Process and senior technical director in charge of interface standards at Veritas, heads the Bluefin project. The SNIA took the specification public in May in order to begin building broad industry acceptance, "and that's no easy step," he acknowledges.

Inside the Spec

Advocated by the Desktop Management Task Force, WBEM is an object-oriented, platform-independent set of technologies that vendors can use to build storage management applications that interoperate with other vendors' WBEM-compliant products. CIM, included in the WBEM specification, is a standard set of schema for describing network systems management data.

"If there are 17 array vendors, and each has automated array features or special disaster recovery mirroring techniques, all those features can be introduced into this environment in no more than a nanosecond," Reich claims.

But the effort to get all storage vendors on board could take as long as seven years because, Reich says, "the effort is very much on the scale of the creation of Fibre Channel. We're talking about a management [schema] for the computer industry for storage networks."

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