Analysis: Painless provisioning

Storage is not to be left out of the automation wave sweeping through corporate networks.

One of the hottest developments in storage resource management is automated provisioning - software for easing the resource allocation process.

Storage provisioning is known as a time-consuming, repetitive and error-prone process. When additional storage is needed for an application, a storage administrator must determine the exact type and quality of storage required by the particular application, locate that type of storage within a storage-area network (SAN), and identify an appropriate path or paths between the storage device and the application. Adding storage to a high-end array can take as many as 42 steps, each requiring analysis and testing,experts say. Fixing errors can be time-consuming and can result in data loss.

"Provisioning is one of the more painstaking tasks that does not have a huge amount of value," says Nancy Marrone, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. "It can be a three- to four-day process, and sometimes takes up to three weeks - time that could be spent on more important tasks."

She says the exercise can be so exasperating that people often request more storage than is needed to avoid going through the provisioning process again right way. "You end up with an extremely inefficient use of existing resources," Marrone says.

By using automated software, you can streamline the process, saving time, reducing the over-provisioning of storage and cutting down on errors, Marrone says. Automated provisioning ensures that systems and applications get the correct type of storage by relying on preset rules for allocation, she says. IT managers set the rules based on service levels, the value of the data and the needs of specific business applications.

Early users of automated provisioning report good results. "We've been able to do additional work that we didn't have time for before because the provisioning process was so manual," says Gary Pilafas, senior storage and systems architect for UAL Loyalty Services, a Web-based division of UAL Corp., which uses automated provisioning software from CreekPath Systems.

A market taking off

Analysts expect big market growth, especially as IT managers look to reallocate thin labor resources - by slashing the time it takes to provision - and to maintain a higher level of storage management accuracy. In a recent report, Enterprise Storage Group predicted worldwide sales of automated provisioning products would increase to US$105 million this year from less than $30 million in 2002, and then double from 2003 to 2004.

Storage provisioning software, available from most major storage players since last year, can cost $100,000 to more than $250,000, depending on the size of the corporation. Early adopters say the price is worth the benefits.

UAL Loyalty, which runs UAL's portal for e-commerce and other Internet functions, looked into storage resource management, including automated provisioning, when its storage requirements increased significantly with the development of new Web sites and online service offerings.

The company has three SANs, with storage systems from multiple vendors, for dealing with huge volumes of data. Managing these storage resources efficiently with a minimal IT staff was imperative, Pilafas says. "We have a small team to begin with, and we're trying to do more work with the same number of people," he says.

In October 2002, UAL Loyalty began using CreekPath's AIM Suite 2.5 storage resource management software with automated provisioning capability. Since then, the division has slashed provisioning time from one week to a matter of hours - and IT staffers now have more time to develop Web-based business opportunities for the airline, Pilafas says.

UAL Loyalty spent $300,000 for the suite, including installation, system configuration and training, Pilafas says. The return on investment for the software will come partly from the additional revenue from new Web ventures and from having more efficient storage management and less system downtime during provisioning, he adds.

But the real selling point for automated provisioning was the savings in labor costs, Pilafas says. "We went into senior management with an if-then proposition," he says. "We said, OIf we don't buy this software, then we'll need to add headcount.' We probably would have needed at least two more people for storage management."

Other IT and storage managers are taking a wait-and-see approach to automated provisioning.

Steve Pomposi, head of storage management at insurer Aetna, in Hartford, Conn., says he is holding off on automated provisioning until the technology matures. "We need the ability to provision storage across heterogeneous servers and storage devices," Pomposi says, noting that he is following work on standards meant to ease multivendor provisioning.

Getting what you need

Automated solutions are only as good as the policies and processes companies put in place for allocating storage. Obviously, the more sophisticated the storage infrastructure, the tougher the job.

Enterprise Storage Group's Marrone cautions that not all provisioning software lets users allocate storage for individual applications or files. "Although everyone says they look at storage provisioning from an application perspective, only a few companies give you insight into how an application is using storage," she says. "And if you can get down to the file level, then you can make storage decisions based on file type. We see that happening as the need for storage resource management increases."

Managers also have to get comfortable letting software run formerly manual processes, Marrone adds.

That's an issue for Malcolm Fields, CIO at office furniture manufacturer Hon Industries, in Muscatine, Iowa. While Fields says he likes the idea, he doesn't think provisioning software is mature enough.

"We're not comfortable with taking something that used to be performed by someone who is analytical and intelligent and putting it into a piece of software," he says.

Violino is a freelance writer covering business and technology. He can be reached at bviolino@optonline.net.

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