October 08, 2012, 2:43 PM — For cash-strapped IT shops looking to get out from under manual storage management chores, storage orchestration software looks like a lifeline: It promises to let users choose from a catalog of predefined storage services and then handle the provisioning details behind the scenes.
It's a worthy vision, and one vendors are moving toward. However, there's currently no "single pane of glass" product that can automatically provision, resize, back up and recover storage across multiple public and private clouds, across systems from different vendors and for virtual machines running hypervisors from multiple vendors. Most orchestration tools support only a single product line, are optimized for certain functions or don't support the public, multitenant object-based storage services that provide the lowest cost and most flexibility.
It's even more rare to find orchestration tools that can manage both virtual machines and storage. Creating true global orchestration is an expensive, complex task usually tackled only by the largest enterprises or service providers that can spread the investment across multiple customers.
Today, storage management is "very fragmented, and things don't necessarily work well together," says Forrester Research storage analyst Andrew Reichman. "For the most part, [tools] are quite expensive, complex to use and have mixed results with [other vendors'] products.... The automation level of storage lags that of servers," especially when comparing storage management systems with server virtualization platforms such as VMware. With storage, "there is still a lot of manual, mundane work being done," says Reichman.
Despite some acceptance of standards for defining common storage and server functions, vendors are understandably reluctant to use them to make it easier for customers to move data from their products to those of their competitors. Some are also too busy integrating technologies they have acquired to focus on interoperability with their competitors.
Many of today's orchestration platforms are more like service catalogs that offer various service levels for different applications and use application programming interfaces (API) to storage and server management tools to deliver the services. HCL Technologies' MyCloud, for example, is "not like a management tool, but more like an aggregation platform [that] can integrate with the native management tools" from infrastructure providers such as VMware or Amazon, or existing management vendors such as BMC or CA, says Kalyan Kumar, associate vice president and head of cloud at HCL. Customers can request compute and storage services through it, but they must log in to each platform's management console to perform more sophisticated operations, such as archiving data, he says.
In the absence of universal orchestration, customers are using tools that support their hardware and software to solve problems in areas such as application availability, disaster recovery and quality of service. These products fall into several broad categories.
A growing number of vendors are offering "storage hypervisors" that virtualize the storage and, in some cases, their associated file servers to create scalable, flexible pools of storage. This virtualization layer often runs on standard x86 servers and is optimized for specific functions, storage protocols or applications. One example is DataCore Software's SANsymphony-V, which links to VMware's vCenter to automatically discover VMware servers running in a customer's environment. A systems administrator can then associate a given class of storage with various servers, and SANsymphony automatically provisions it.
Hosting and integration services firm Amnet Technology Solutions has been using SANsymphony for close to three years, and senior technologist Rich Conway says the product has provided "absolutely phenomenal" redundancy. "The entire storage infrastructure was essentially mirrored, where both sides are active/active, and if any component of either side fails for any reason, our entire grid stays up and our customers don't even notice," he says. SANsymphony has also enabled Amnet to eliminate planned downtime for routine maintenance such as firmware upgrades, says Conway.
Later this year, IBM plans to release IBM SmartCloud Virtual Storage Center, an appliance-based virtualization layer that will provide services such as backup, load balancing and snapshots across applications and provision the right storage for each class of service, says Steve Wojtowecz, vice president of Tivoli storage software development at IBM.
Combining IBM's SAN Volume Controller storage virtualization platform with its Tivoli Storage Productivity Center management software and the Tivoli Storage FlashCopy Manager, the SmartCloud Virtual Storage Center will provide consistent performance on multiple vendors' storage arrays in data centers within 300 kilometers of each other, says Wojtowecz. But it doesn't currently support block storage, he adds.
Zadara Storage runs its storage virtualization layer on commodity servers in its own colocated cloud facilities, turning direct-attached disk drives into virtual SAN arrays. Noam Shendar, vice president of business development, says this gives those drives the performance, reliability and security of more expensive SANs, and provides capabilities such as clustering using familiar SAN management tools.
Other vendors use a global file system to separate the details of where and how VMs or data are stored from the higher-level management objectives, such as meeting the terms of various service-level agreements (SLA).
Among the vendors coming the closest to offering combined server/storage management with this approach is Tintri, whose "VM-aware" storage appliances are designed to replace traditional storage units such as volumes, LUNs and files with virtual disks. Tintri's VMstore file system monitors and controls I/O performance for each virtual disk, communicating with the VMware vCenter to detect which virtual machines are active and how they are using storage. It then automatically chooses the best combination of storage for each virtual machine, including fast but expensive solid-state drives and slower but less costly disks.