These days, the holy grail of storage is a single platform that meets all needs: one that’s fast, scalable, reliable and affordable. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that some storage solutions are simply better for specific projects than others, and attempting to stick with a homogeneous storage strategy may cost the organization a competitive edge or simply be impractical given today’s IT budgets.
Enjoying a one-size-fits-all storage solution becomes increasingly difficult as industry trends like hyperconverged infrastructure, cloud computing, virtualization and software-defined storage continue to gain steam in the data center. The reality is that instances of heterogeneous (multivendor) storage are quickly becoming the norm. In an effort to help those tasked with overseeing disparate storage devices better manage this type of storage deployment, here is an overview of its pros and cons, as well as several best practices for more-effective management.
By far the primary benefit of a heterogeneous storage strategy is the flexibility it affords. The ability to pick and choose storage solutions that address specific business needs—whether it be performance, capacity or cost—is a significant advantage. Perhaps it’s a network-attached-storage (NAS) device that is designed for file storage, or storage-area network (SAN) optimized for a database. Either way, there’s always a system that’s better suited for a particular task or optimized for a specific function, and a heterogeneous storage strategy allows for a stronger alignment between the storage solution and the specific storage need.
To that end, this flexibility also enables organizations in need of storage expansion to benefit from the next-generation capabilities of newer devices. For example, a business running an array that’s two years old and looking to purchase additional storage may be interested in exploring new technology, such as flash-optimized storage from its current vendor or another vendor entirely. Alternatively, an organization may need to expand its storage by only a certain number of terabytes. With the flexibility of a heterogeneous strategy, it can invest in a right-size storage unit and save compared with purchasing a more expensive unit with unneeded storage space. Ultimately, the freedom to cherry-pick storage solutions case by case can help cut costs and ensure an organization is not only running an efficient data center but also delivering a quality end-user experience.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest drawback of using heterogeneous storage solutions is management. Although every vendor provides monitoring, management and visibility software for its products, the problem is that these tools seldom offer a holistic view of multiple storage devices (if they do, that’s typically the case only if the entire storage environment consists of that vendor’s technology). But even if an organization is able to use a single storage vendor, the vendors often have multiple products for multiple purposes, perhaps resulting from product-line acquisitions. Thus, the average IT professional must be equipped with the expertise to operate and understand any number of disparate storage-management tools, which ultimately requires an investment of both time and money.
To make things even more complicated, working with several different management tools significantly undermines an IT professional’s ability to monitor capacity and plan for future usage. Without one view into all of the storage devices, adequately tracking usage and available space is extremely difficult, as many storage administrators manually track capacity and growth trends in spreadsheets. Not only is that process prone to errors, but end users can easily use up all of their assigned storage before an admin is even aware that space has maxed out. Moreover, although common statistics may be reported between vendor management tools, how they are reported may be different. For example, some vendors may report and alert on predefined thresholds, whereas some may let you set your own thresholds. Still others may show details of each LUN/volume but omit an overall capacity view of the entire array or a view of capacity growth trends at the device, storage pool and/or LUN/volume level.
Finally, the individual management tools provided by these storage vendors also complicate an organization’s ability to monitor performance metrics and troubleshoot issues. Similar to capacity planning, some vendors may provide reporting but not alerts; some may provide alerts but not reporting—it all boils down to putting the onus on the IT professional to maintain cross-unit visibility by going from tool to tool collecting data points and identifying performance trends.
Getting Your Storage Under Control: Management Best Practices
The good news is a business can still enjoy the benefits of a heterogeneous storage deployment. IT professionals should follow this set of best practices to ensure that once several project-specific products have been implemented, they can still be effectively managed.
- Get a single view: The first step in ameliorating some of the common heterogeneous-storage pain points is to collect data from all of your different storage platforms and centralize them in a single interface or management tool. By using a single tool, you will bridge, consolidate and normalize the metrics, alerts and reporting provided by the disparate storage vendors, enabling a more efficient approach to troubleshooting and management.
- Optimize your assets: With a unified tool that shows, volume by volume, the activity being required of multiple-vendor storage systems, the storage administrator is then better equipped to easily balance existing workloads and plan for the future. You would be amazed at how many organizations find themselves wasting expensive storage space simply by skipping—or underestimating—this one step. Visibility into free and in-use space will help cut capital costs as well; an IT professional’s ability to balance and redistribute workloads means purchasing a new system isn’t always immediately necessary.
- Automated monitoring: A unified monitoring tool eliminates the need for IT pros to check performance and capacity daily, freeing up valuable time. In addition, with an alerting function, any time an error or performance condition occurs, the storage administrator can receive a notification and immediately take corrective action. The IT professional can then more quickly resolve problem areas and also be active in addressing performance problems.
For organizations working with heterogeneous storage systems, a holistic management strategy must become a critical consideration so the flexibility and cost savings don’t get lost in administrative complexity. Having a single view into many disparate storage devices, IT pros can normalize management to the point that multiple storage systems can be managed as if they were all created by the same vendor. With the hassle of management neutralized, organizations can then rest assured that they have the flexibility to integrate the latest data center technology without being tied to a single storage vendor.
About the Author
James Honey is a senior product-marketing manager for hybrid-IT performance-management-software provider SolarWinds. He has more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry focused specifically on storage technologies and virtualization solutions for SMBs to enterprise environments. His current role includes responsibility for all storage monitoring- and management-related product-marketing initiatives, including SolarWinds Storage Resource Monitor.