Part 2: Responding to user SAN complaints, vendors say they're improving

In the first segment of this two-part series we discussed user complaints relating to such issues as compatibility and misleading spec sheets (see story). Also discussed were the benefits of the Storage Networking Industry Association's emerging Bluefin standard. This week, the discussion moves to incomplete product offerings, scalability challenges and management issues.

The inability of products to work out of the box poses a significant problem to users. Vendors blame this problem on configuration issues, the failure to check interoperability guidelines and unprepared user environments. No matter what the reasons, nailing down all the details can amount to a mammoth task, so where they can, vendors claim to provide in-the-box aids.

"We often get calls saying, 'We got this switch, and it's not working,'" says Claude Lorenson, director of product management and marketing at Vixel Corp. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's a configuration issue, not a product issue." According to Lorenson, it often comes back to a lack of quality on the part of user manuals and user guides. "Most people don't read them; they think the products are plug-and-play. Then, they say, 'Whoops, maybe I should go to the user manual and read the first few pages.' "

What Vixel has done to counteract this trend is provide a "Quick Start Guide," a two-page glossy that summarizes the strict minimum resources users need to get going.

Is Fibre Channel 'nearly plug-and-play?'

According to Greg Beutler, senior systems engineer at Gadzoox Networks, Fibre Channel is "nearly plug-and-play," thanks to vendors engaging in interoperability labs, industry plugfests and SNIA testing efforts. And where SANs don't work out of the box, Beutler notes, it's up to vendors or VARs to make it right for the customer.

Gadzoox has built into its Slingshot Fabric switch family a number of features designed to accommodate shortcomings of other SAN devices, such as auto-speed negotiating, auto-port sensing (for fabric or loop devices) and the inability to compensate when device parameters fail to match up.

Adds Scott Drummond, program manager for storage networking at IBM, customers and vendors must work together on background work before implementation. "If it's all new equipment in a supported configuration, then most installations go smoothly," Drummond says. "However, most customers will be installing SAN equipment into preexisting hardware environments, where research into the supported levels of hardware, software and microcode are crucial to a smooth installation."

Good project management is also vital, according to Drummond, who observes, "If the customer doesn't have these resources to commit, then IBM and IBM's business partners have extensive service offerings to perform all or part of the implementation steps."

It's getting easier

Frank Berry, vice president of marketing at Qlogic, sees a trend toward SANs becoming simpler to install, especially as familiarity with the technology grows. "Device drivers used to be something where you had to get a CD from the vendor and figure out how to load it to make the HBA work," Berry explains. "Today, you just install a new hardware wizard from Windows 2000. As every month goes by, more and more SAN integrators are getting smarter about how to put these in. And there's an accelerating familiarity with SAN products."

A good example of how Qlogic measures this growing familiarity is that it sees less reliance on VARs among users deploying their third or fourth products.

Notes Beutler, "If a customer does his or her homework and confirms with all vendors on their interoperability matrix, you can put together and test a 31-host homogenous SAN in a day. End users should not take SANs lightly, but a SAN doesn't need to be a science project either. A reputable SAN implementer will let the customer know what works vs. selling just a bill of materials."

Scalability

Product scalability is another problem cited by users. They say that while low-end versions work, performance in full-scale production environments can be so poor as to render the solution useless.

In response, vendors say it is up to implementers to be more savvy. "If the customer's SAN implementer doesn't ask the question, 'What will your SAN look like in three years,' fire him," says Beutler. "He isn't thinking like an owner who needs to keep this production infrastructure up and delivering long after the sale."

Drummond agrees, saying, "Scalability of SANs can be done correctly or poorly. Currently, SAN design is a hot topic with many diverse opinions and many customer priorities - some of which conflict." For instance, customers can optimize performance and availability but not costs. Or they may optimize performance and costs at the expense of availability. "Knowing customer priorities in scalability is the first crucial step in the project planning that needs to occur before a customer implements their new ring design or core/edge design," Drummond asserts.

Start with the end in mind

Mike Gustafson, executive vice president of marketing at McDATA, says his company relies on its professional services staff to help customers start with the end in mind. Regardless of whether a company is big or small, the intention of being in business is to grow, he says. "So we work to make sure there is a path of growth. What additional growth do you expect, what new environments will you incorporate, what key applications do you plan to implement?"

Think of the customer who deploys at the departmental level without the full context of how it will be integrated into a shared fabric, and you can get into serious difficulties around scalability and management, Gustafson says.

McDATA offers two technologies that help with scalability. Its HotCat capability makes sure customers don't disturb the SAN fabric every time they download firmware. And Flexport, which is geared for the midrange and entry-level marketplace, enables users to add ports as needed. It makes sure that there's compatibility across the product line and that the management products can scale.

Follow a plan

For its part, HP offers Storage Blueprints, which provide instructions on how to build storage environments. According to Bob Schultz, vice president of marketing for HP's network storage systems, "Much like a blueprint for a new house, storage blueprints provide an architectural framework and detailed plan of action for how to implement a SAN, disaster recovery, backup or storage management solution."

HP also offers the SAN-sizer, which helps the sales team and partners take a customer through the process of sizing a network, making sure they get all the right pieces and that all of those pieces are going to work together.

Another development that has helped with scalability, according to Drummond, is the shift from SAN Hub and Loop Switch (FC-AL) components to Fabric Switch components with double-speed, 2G bps technology. "That has removed most of the initial Fibre Channel SAN issues," Drummond says. "Further advances in software management now enable customers to initially install small SAN islands and then later integrate these islands into large enterprise SANs scalable to thousands of devices."

Customers also play a role. "I don't want to throw stones, but some SAN implementations weren't rigorously designed or were shoe-horned in to meet a budget," Beutler says. "We know that careers are made with the right technology choices and ended with bad ones. We understand that it isn't just a SAN we're building as much as data systems that deliver and support the business intelligence of their company."

Management

The lack of available standards for managing SANs is a well-documented user complaint. In response, vendors point to developing interoperability specifications such as CIM, Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) and Bluefin to help simplify network management.

"CIM and Bluefin will help the industry operate more efficiently, and they'll all be around for a while," Berry says. "Sun's Enterprise Storage Manager is committed to CIM, Microsoft is committed to WBEM, and there's a large consortium committed to Bluefin. Qlogic will support all of those."

Lorenson says the problem comes in with the proprietary management software provided by the switch and HBA vendors. "That makes it difficult to mix and match things from different vendors - you might have a different one for Device A, Device B and Device C, which makes things difficult to track and can give the perception that SANs are difficult to manage," Berry declares.

But the new specifications such as Bluefin, CIM and WBEM will create standard interfaces that will help integrate management functionality into bigger framework programs, Lorenson claims. "The industry is moving toward providing standard MIBs that the product can interface with. People are realizing it has to become simpler."

Several standards fronts

Drummond says IBM has been "very active" in several standards fronts, including influential informal groups such as the SNIA and the Fibre Channel Industry Association, as well as formal standards groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Distributed Management Task Force and the American National Standards Institute. "The ANSI T11 Fibre Channel committee has come out with several good standards that most SAN management software packages exploit," he says.

The next major step, according to IBM, is the interoperability of multiple-vendor SAN switches, which will require management standards to be accepted by all major SAN switch vendors.

For McDATA's part, Gustafson concedes that a lot more investment is required to provide customers better manageability. Toward that end, the company has invested in a network management platform called SANavigator, a suite of open-system management tools that can help IT administrators perform reactive, proactive and predictive management of their enterprise-wide heterogeneous network from a single console.

In addition, the company announced its API strategy, or "Connectors," which are intended to enable interoperability among a wide variety of storage management applications. "Say a customer has a framework like Tivoli or Unicenter and a storage management platform through EMC or IBM. They can use Connectors to that platform so the whole system can be managed," Gustafson says.

HP has introduced SAN-ES, which serves as a single point of support and management for customers with heterogeneous configurations. "In the beginning, customers needed to buy everything from a single vendor to insure compatibility," Schultz says. "As storage networking has matured, storage environments have become heterogeneous."

In addition, he says, HP is actively driving standards around management. "We've talked about supporting the Bluefin/CIM, and we're working to have compatible products."

In the meantime, Schultz continues, "We exchanged APIs with the three other largest storage providers so that we can offer customers the ability to manage heterogeneous storage environments from a single management tool, HP's OpenView Storage Area Manager. "That work has resulted in a great degree of interoperability and compatibility for our customers."

According to Beutler, with all the attention being paid to standard network management by the SNIA as well as independent software vendors, "This issue is going to be moot in less than a year."

Mary Brandel is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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