Storage by the rules

Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest independent natural gas companies in the U.S. uses about two-dozen storage management policies. The policies determine what information the firm wants to keep and where it wants to store it.

Chesapeake Energy systems engineer Jay Newton says that software from CommVault Systems has allowed him to use those policies to design an automated backup scheme that reduced backup times from hours to about 20 minutes.

"All I'm doing is defining how long I want to keep something. When I set up a server for backup, I set the policy for it, and that determines how long it gets kept," Newton says, referring to the amount of time until a file is erased or ejected from the tape library used for long-term storage. "I've had this in production for nine months, and I haven't had to touch [the servers] yet."

As production-scale storage-area networks (SAN) are increasingly deployed throughout large enterprises, the resulting increase in nodes and network connections has become more unwieldy to manage manually. In response, software tools meant to automate storage resource management using policies are finding a place in the enterprise.

Known as policy-based storage management, the software offerings from industry leaders such as Veritas Software Corp., Legato Systems Inc., EMC Corp. and IBM, as well as from lesser-known start-ups, automatically allocate storage space to end users, balance the loads on servers and disk arrays, and reroute networks when systems go down all based on policies set up by systems administrators.

For example, policy-based storage management software could monitor storage headroom, and when the volume approached a specified threshold, an automated policy would dictate that more storage be allocated from an available disk pool, avoiding server downtime.

Most current incarnations of policy-based software are used to alert administrators through e-mail or dashboardlike displays but don't automatically correct the problem, says Bill North, director of storage software research at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

To reach true policy-based storage management, North and others say the hour-to-hour, day-to-day control of storage systems must shift completely to the computer. But IT administrators aren't quite comfortable with giving up that level of control, says North. "As trust goes up, the ability to truly automate will go up as well," he says.

In December, Bell Canada International Inc. in Montreal finished rolling out a policy-based product on its 17TB SAN that automatically allocates 200MB of server space per user along with thresholds alerts and the ability to filter out improper files and generate reports.

"Once we got software installed and started generating reports, even before developing [automated] policies . . . it gave us ammo to go to the user and say, 'According to company policy, you're not allowed to have these files,' " says Steven Varin, a business analyst in the CIO's office at Bell Canada. "Once we started the [automated] policy and started finding files, we almost fell back on our butts."

What systems administrators at Bell Canada found is common, according to analysts: MP3 music files, movies and other files for personal use. They also discovered that about 50 percent of company-generated data on disk should have been archived on tape.

By filtering out the unwanted data, Bell Canada freed up about 3TB, or US$250,000 worth, of disk space. In turn, the company brought the availability of its application servers from 85 percent to 99 percent and reduced its backup window by 10 percent.

"We would have had to implement another 6TB of disk space just to hold our own to get to the end of 2001. The cost of that would have been enormous over a half-million dollars," Varin says. "I've been sleeping a lot better now."

But Raymond Paquet, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says he believes policy-based storage management is simply "a bunch of buzzwords strung together. The reality is, in order to have a policy-based management tool, you must first have a policy-based engine an umbrella that goes out to take policy and implement it."

Marc Farley, an independent storage consultant, agrees, saying that storage hasn't been policy-driven but that policy engines are starting to emerge with the growth of enterprisewide SANs.

"The first products that have had it are backup and recovery products, replication products those sorts of things for disaster tolerance and data protection," Farley says. "But I think you're going to see other products coming in that start looking at managing SANs."

Paquet criticizes automated backup policies, saying that true policy-based resource management must be connected with restore capabilities.

"Backup doesn't matter. It's utterly unimportant. We only do that because we want to perform recovery. We shouldn't have a backup policy; we should only have a recovery policy," Paquet says. "In an ideal world, I'd like to sit in front of my engine and have recovery that occurs in eight hours and with zero loss. This policy management tool should spit out what's required for that."

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