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Sun 18 May 2008 04:00 AM

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Minding the store

Enterprises in the Middle East have several choices of vendors, solutions and architectures for storage virtualisation projects. However, the success of such projects may eventually depend on the organisation itself.

Enterprises in the Middle East have several choices of vendors, solutions and architectures for storage virtualisation projects. However, the success of such projects may eventually depend on the organisation itself.

Storage virtualisation is often the next step for an enterprise that has invested in server virtualisation, or it is a project that happens in parallel with server virtualisation.

Either way, storage is on the agenda of any enterprise that considers virtualisaion as the way ahead. This is because it comes with certain obvious benefits.

The most important prerequisite is to understand what business problems will be solved through storage virtualisation.

"Investing in storage virtualisation and a tiered storage infrastructure allows enterprises to manage storage assets centrally, and much more efficiently. Storage virtualisation would enable enterprises to use a single platform to consolidate and simplify storage infrastructures, combining previously separate storage silos and optimising storage capacity management and planning. This has the potential to lower storage-related operating costs for most organisations by 15% or more over a three-year period, when compared to a single-tiered architecture," points out Tony Ward, general manager and sales director for Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan at Hitachi Data Systems.

Storage virtualisation though is not a single, static concept; it comes in multiple flavours.

According to Robin Kuepers manager of the storage centre of competence at Dell EMEA: "There are four distinct flavours to storage virtualisation. The first is heterogeneous storage virtualisation, then there is RAID-based and RISC-based storage virtualisation. Finally you have storage in virtualised servers which actually has nothing to do with storage virtualisation but basically involves enterprises having virtualised servers that have storage included in them. Looking at the industry and where we are right now, RAID based storage virtualisation is the most interesting model for most customers and it is the one which is growing the fastest."

"Customers have a huge choice of deployment architectures for virtualisation and the decision is typically based on the perceived benefits from each virtualisation vendor," says Simon Gregory, business development manager for EMEA at CommVault.

In essence though, storage virtualisation denotes bringing together existing storage assets and networking them. This can be based upon dedicated fibre channel, iSCSI SANs or IP based NAS.

And whatever the flavour chosen, storage virtualisation will almost always bring along changes in existing infrastructure for an enterprise.

"To bring the disparate disk arrays together by virtualising them, enterprises must be prepared for a SAN reconfiguration exercise to bring in the new virtualisation controller as a layer in front of all disk arrays," says David Beck, storage group manager, MENA at Sun Microsystems.

"There are basically two ways a storage virtualisation decision is going to affect infrastructure. You can either rip out and replace, at a cost of millions of dollars or you can make better use of what you have, adding infrastructure where appropriate. The most cost effective decision that truly embraces the concept of virtualisation would probably be one that incorporates a tiered approach to storage - by this I mean using cheaper, tier three storage such as tape for rarely accessed, non-critical data, while keeping the more vital data on tier one (for instance fibre channel). The "virtual" part of this approach involves decoupling the physical link between data and users - introducing a layer of abstraction that, to the user, means what tier data is stored on is not something they ever see or affects them," clarifies Paul Sherry, regional director for MEA at F5 Networks.The best way to plan for and tackle the changes that any form of storage virtualisation can bring is to start early and to have the essential pre-requisites in place. Starting right

"Enterprises are candidates to shift to storage virtualisation if they are information intensive, want increased business flexibility, have issues of storage resource allocation, want to improve scalability, have cooling issues, want to lower power consumption and have a heterogeneous environment. Before shifting to a virtualised environment, firms should consider how to enable high availability, increase their security and enhance efficient disaster recovery," says Said Akar, pre-sales manager for the Middle East at EMC.

Certain situations will also warrant storage virtualisation such as company acquisitions that mean storage space is running out, legacy file systems that make back-ups time-consuming and user-disruptive and audits that reveal huge amounts of inactive stored data, as Sherry points out.

The most cost effective decision that truly embraces the concept of virtualisation would probably be one that incorporates a tiered approach to storage.

"The most important prerequisite is to understand what business problems will be solved through storage virtualisation. Virtualisation is a key technology and companies can realise multiple benefits through its implementation but unless the decision is driven by a strong business case, there is a danger of deploying technology just for technology's sake," says Ward.

"Hire an external company to do an assessment of your storage landscape. Customers often have internal storage and what we have seen is that as they grow they get more storage islands and different technologies. Therefore it is very difficult for customers to judge what storage is sitting where and how important the data is. A consultant's report should give the right insight with which organisations can accordingly plan the right investment in a storage virtualisation platform," states Dell's Kuepers.

As soon as an assessment is conducted and an end-result has been provided on what data is sitting where, the next step would be to come up with a storage strategy.

According to Kuepers, enterprises should use this as the basic format for storage virtualisation while also deciding on what they want to achieve with the project - more growth, a level of consolidation or something akin to disaster recovery.

With this, companies can talk to vendors, seek advice and make the right decision for the firm.

"Appoint a storage manager and plan the virtualisation project. Make a storage survey of all existing storage infrastructure (arrays, switches, networks, capacities, tools) and determine the service levels that the virtualised storage has to deliver to the application and end-users alike. Also, choose an all encompassing storage management tool, include storage management reports for error detection and look at how your virtualised storage infrastructure can enhance other IT processes (back-up, disaster recovery, consolidation, compliance)," states Stefan Wolf, SWD business development manager at HP Middle East.

The false steps

While the process might seem deceptively simple, many an enterprise makes mistakes along the way to storage virtualisation. Often, these mistakes can lead to huge project modifications which can cause undue delays and budget over-runs.In worst cases, it can lead to the entire project being called off.

One of the most fundamental mistakes that enterprises make is think that virtualised storage is beneficial across all situations.

"Virtualisation in general has advantages, it makes solving storage much easier. But if a firm's storage utilisation is 60%, should they think about virtualisation right now? The answer is no, because they have 40% room. You might be able to use it when your headroom is becoming less - from 15% to 10% - because then there is a big risk that you will run out of storage soon," says Kuepers.

He adds that many companies stay away from these projects as they believe them to be either highly expensive or extremely complex. Kuepers states that storage virtualisation need not be either and that the economies will turn out to be much more profitable in the long term.

Another mistake would be to invest in untested, unproven virtualisation technologies.

"Enterprises often believe certain vendors blindly without getting appropriate local references. Each vendor does virtualisation slightly differently; some are more successful than others with their strategies," says Beck.

"The most important trap to avoid is to believe that virtualisation means a complete restructure of the storage environment. Instead, companies can take a first, risk-free step of evaluating how virtualisation technology can fit into their existing environment. Existing hardware and storage management software can and should be part of the virtualisation process. Then procedural and configuration changes will be needed, along with training. Then identify the other technologies required on host servers, including applications, agents, drivers or other forms of software," says Omar Dajani, manager of systems engineering at Symantec MENA.

"Evolution rather than revolution is a good approach. An intelligent storage controller, apart from being a virtualisation engine can also be deployed as a standard monolithic storage array. Virtualisation can then be introduced over time thereby avoiding major disruptions that would be the case with a rip and replace approach," points out CommVault's Gregory.

Even after implementation, enterprises can make mistakes with the management of the systems and the project itself.

"Since they make copies of everything in the storage network, we see a lot of duplication taking place. I would say after virtualisation it would be good to have a management platform in place and create ownership in the organisation to make sure that duplication does not take place, or even if it does take place de-duplication efforts are done fast to make sure that you are treating storage in the best way possible," says Kuepers.

Most virtualisation vendors provide their own management platforms for storage. An enterprise can also do some research and buy best of breed solutions in the area.It is important to ensure that whatever the management software that companies choose to use, it is not proprietary and does not lock them into a single vendor.

However, the most common mistake that enterprises make relates to data management.

While storage virtualisation can reduce complexity, it cannot do so unless the enterprise in question has a clear idea of the kind of data it produces and the criticality of each piece of data based on which it creates tiers of storage - critical data in one tier, non-critical operational data in another and archival data as the third.

Without that element of storage strategy worked out, any storage virtualisation project would be just a clear waste of time.

Getting it right

"Do not allow shiny toys to obscure the real deliverables. Check whether or not you can virtualise your infrastructure at the highest possible level to allow flexibility. Do not under any circumstances deploy virtualisation in the knowledge that it will ultimately become another stove pipe technology resigned quickly to the annals of good technology ideas," warns Gregory.

Sadly, this is easier said than done. There are several vendors in the Middle East market who offer storage virtualisation options as part of their portfolio.

The plethora of choices available in solutions and architectures means that firms can and do get confused with storage virtualisation projects.

The good news though is that these are indicators of the initial stages of a maturing market and with proper handling, can be eventually smoothed out to provide true benefits.

Enterprises should keep in mind that the success and failure of a storage virtualisation project often depends not on the vendor, the consultant or the solution but on themselves, how far they know their objectives and how resourceful they are in choosing, implementing and managing the entire project.

Top tips for storage virtualisation1. Ask yourself - if you really need or simply want storage virtualisation technology.

2. Keep in mind - the issues or challenges you are looking to address with virtualisation technology.

3. Do your homework - on vendors and solutions available in the Middle East market.

4. Evaluate - which approach to storage virtualisation will fit your needs better.

5. Make the effort to - visit reference sites and/or competency centres. If possible, run a pilot in your organisation.

6. Make sure - you have board level support for the storage virtualisation project.

7. Perform - preparatory tasks such as calling in an external consultant, setting a storage strategy and establishing tiers for data.

8. Invest in - a good, comprehensive management solution.

9. Train - your staff for the changes that storage virtualisation will certainly bring.

10. Know - that storage virtualisation is not a static technology and keep yourself updated with the changes in the market.

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