Smarter systems

In simpler times when the sun always shone, the iron was big, the direct access storage devices were directly attached to the servers and most computers still ran on coal, life was relatively easy. Now we live in more complex times.

Unfortunately, complex times have led to complex systems. It is a fact of life that when we manage our storage resources we are managing environments that are many times more convoluted than the systems we managed 20 years ago. Furthermore, it is often true that even the simplest IT environments may be more complicated than what the available IT support staffers are prepared to deal with.

Consider that even a simple environment will likely have networks, SCSI and advanced technology attachment disks, many of them direct-attached and often (if you believe what Anne Skamarock and I tell you) with a bit of networked storage thrown in. More advanced storage environments will put storage-area networks into play, which of course adds several levels of complexity (Fibre Channel and switch management to start with) to the mix. If you add in the need for efficiently managing all that stuff, you may begin to get nervous.

Who leads us by the hand through all this, and keeps the technology backbone of their enterprises on an even keel? The IT staff, of course.

I suggest that the importance of the admins, DBAs, operators and tape handlers has grown almost as exponentially, as has the amount of data they over which keep watch.

It is estimated that 15 years ago we spent about one-third of our IT dollars on people involved in management. Now, by some estimates, the rate is two dollars out of every three.

We all know that experienced workers tend to function differently than their newer counterparts. (For one thing, the older guys still seem to like scripts so they can root around in the depths of a technical environment, while less experienced people seem more partial to screen-driven tools.) These more experienced workers - and the newer ones as well, as they acquire more skills - are in every sense a living expert system, a knowledge base that sets the policies, implements the fixes, secures the health, ensures the safety and plans against the future needs of our storage assets.

This would seem to indicate that there is a lot of value in our IT workers. But what happens when they leave? Are you prepared to deal with the issues that might arise? Do you even know what those issues may be?

Generally speaking, there are two ways to address this issue.

First, we can look at automating our environments. By this we mean bringing on board management software that is based on policies designed by the human expert systems you already have in place. With the right software, you may be able to build in all the knowledge you need before the wanderlust strikes your staff.

The second alternative is for the vendors to build more intelligent capabilities into our systems. Let the boxes and their management software get smart enough to configure, protect, heal and optimize themselves proactively, with only the most minimal human intervention. When I mentioned such "autonomic" capabilities a few weeks ago, several of you perked up your ears and the proportion of poison pen letters in my e-mail dipped a bit. So, over the next several weeks, we will look at the promise offered by automated management systems (many available, even today), and at the brave new world of brighter machines that can actually care for themselves.

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