Put to the Test: Saner SAN Management

Stop managing your SAN by the seat of your pants. Of the three SAN management packages we tested, find out which one's monitoring and managing abilities topped the competition.

May 9, 2004

14 Min Read
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Finally, you want your software to include element management. You shouldn't have to master device- and vendor-specific apps and Web and command-line interfaces; instead, these tools should provide a consistent interface for common tasks, such as zoning.

San Managers Features

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With these ideals in mind, we searched for heterogeneous SAN managers that let administrators run a Fibre Channel SAN from a Windows console. Computer Associates' BrightStor SAN Manager, McData Corp.'s SANavigator and Softek's SANView all met our criteria. Veritas Software Corp.'s SANPoint Control is also a contender in this category, but Veritas declined to participate in our tests, saying it expects to ship a new release of SANPoint Control, but couldn't get us a copy of the final code before our deadline.

In contrast with the network-management arena, in which all the vendors support SNMP MIBs, each SAN-device vendor has developed its own management interfaces and APIs. Despite several rounds of important announcements from the SNIA (Storage Network Industry Association) and most of the vendors touting the holy grail of SAN management as WBEM (Web-Based Enterprise Management) or CIM (Common Information Model), or Bluefin, or SMI-S (Storage Management Initiative Specification), standard protocols and APIs for SAN-device management haven't reached the masses. By necessity, therefore, each product has vendor-specific modules or interfaces for managing devices from the major players in the enterprise SAN arena, such as McData and Brocade switches.

Look over the supported products list for any SAN manager to make sure it supports at least the key devices in your network. As we learned with our test SAN, owners of older or lower-end gear may have to wait until they upgrade their SAN infrastructure to get coherent management.That caveat aside, we found McData's SANavigator the biggest help managing our SAN and awarded it our Editor's Choice. SANavigator can help you from the planning stage through monitoring and managing the finished system faster and more easily than the competition. Softek's SANView is no slouch and is the best choice for users of Vixel switches or other devices SANavigator doesn't support. We can only recommend BrightStor SAN Manager to CA shops--it's more expensive and less focused than the other two products because of its use of CA's Unicenter interface.In the ongoing rivalry between switch makers Brocade and McData, SANavigator proves compatibility is a powerful weapon. Although SANavigator has a few special features for McData networks, this management tool's outstanding support for large, high-end SANs is its strength. SANavigator can manage zoning and other features of Brocade switches and other devices on a heterogeneous SAN. Furthermore, the package performs its duties more flexibly and efficiently than its competitors.

SANavigator uses a client-server model. The server performs discovery and collects data, while up to 25 clients per server display the data and manage devices. Unlike BrightStor and SANView, which use relational databases for their data stores, SANavigator uses flat files on the server computer. This less-sophisticated architecture didn't hold the product back in our tests, however; SANavigator still provides access to the historical performance and event data the others keep in their databases, and the flat files are easier to maintain than those of a relational database.

Installation was a snap and discovery was virtually instantaneous on our test SAN. We installed both the client and server components on a Windows 2000 workstation. While the other products we tested required us to start a discovery from the client user interface, SANavigator's discovery began as soon as the installation completed. Since the switches on our test network were set up with the very secure, very common default SNMP community string, "Public," the switches and systems connected to them were in the SANavigator map when we started the client for the first time. SANavigator discovered our network's Dell switch and bridge, in addition to the host adapters and Brocade switch on the McData-supported device list. There was no need for HBA (Host Bus Adapter) agents.

The client presents the SAN in a three-pane display, much like SANView. A device tree appears in the left pane, a map in the right and an event browser in a lower pane. Roll the mouse pointer over a device and a box with the device's name, IP address and other information pops up. To really get an idea of SANavigator's power and ease of use, click on Monitor Utilization--all your Fibre Channel links magically color code and animate to indicate their utilization, in 20 percent bands. This unique feature, which even shows the different utilization for each direction of travel, lets you review your SAN utilization at a glance, where the other products only show utilization on a switch-by-switch basis.

Only SANavigator let us specify the access various users should have to the SAN. It also let us direct alerts to specific users. With BrightStor or SANView, a user's only choice is to have a read-only or read-write password, and the all alerts must go to one e-mail address. With SANavigator, a local storage administrator in, say, Kalamazoo can be restricted to managing the devices at his site and get a message on his Blackberry that his Fibre Channel switch went down, without ruining everyone else's weekend.In addition to strong visualization and management, SANavigator has a SAN-expansion planning feature, which SANview lacks and CA sells separately. Selecting View Planned SAN from the View menu let us add devices, validate the SAN configuration and print an equipment list for our plan.

Our biggest complaint about SANavigator is the text-mode box that pops up to run a script when the client is started, a nit to pick at worst. SANavigator's polish and performance impressed us. For a 32-port setup, the product's quoted price, at $292 per port, beat the competition's, too (though SANView's price tag for a 512-port setup is substantially lower). The software let us see our SAN, get a quick view of both system status and utilization and manage our devices intuitively.

SANavigator 4.0.2, McData Corp., (800) 545-5773. www.mcdata.comSince Softek (formerly Fujitsu Softek) acquired SAN InSite, Vixel's proprietary management software, the company has continued to expand and improve the product. Now called SANView, this package has become a truly agnostic management tool for heterogeneous SANs, with the broadest supported devices list of the group. If you use devices SANavigator doesn't support, SANView is a strong choice.

Using a client-server architecture with management agents for hosts with Fibre Channel HBAs, SANView shows its cross-platform lineage in its use of the open-source MySQL database on the server and Java in the client.

Installation was uneventful. We stuck in the CD and installed the server client and HBA agent for our QLogic card on our standalone test server. SANView will also install MySQL. The software discovered the devices on our test SAN that were on its supported device list and ignored the others. You can run a discovery for one agent, all devices on an IP subnet, or all the subnets by interrogating your router.The greatest annoyance is that to install SANView you must be logged into a Windows system using a local account that is a member of the administrators group. The install-anywhere engine fails with an error stating that it cannot determine if you have administrative privileges if you are logged in with a domain account, even if that account is an admin. You have to jump through a few minor hoops to install an HBA agent on a domain controller, and you can't use a domain controller as the SANView server.

Although SANView's three-pane interface--device tree, network map and event viewer--is similar to SANavigator's, it has one or two standout features. As your SAN map grows too big to show all the detail you want, you can open a fourth overview pane that lets you see the entire map and zoom in on the section you want to manage--much easier than the usual magnifying glass plus and minus buttons. As a bonus for the lucky few admins who have multiscreen workstations in their NOCs, each pane in the SANView IO can be "peeled off" into a separate Window so you can slide the map or events views onto their own monitors or even projectors.

Each client system keeps user interface configuration and view information independently, so while the SANView server holds a map of all the SANs throughout an organization's global network, the SAN manager in Kalamazoo will see only the Kalamazoo systems on the console.

On large networks, admins can create device groups, which can segregate devices by geography or administrative domain. Unfortunately, SANView's security is limited to a single password for managerial access and another for monitoring only. We'd like to see more granular access control, which could let administrators manage their devices but only monitor devices outside their areas of responsibility--much the way SANavigator functions.

SANView doesn't offer an optimal method to represent devices it can't manage on the SAN diagram nor does it have any other planning features. You can create an enclosure class device that can hold multiple discovered devices, such as a host with multiple HBAs or a JBOD with multiple disk drives. We'd like to see a way to define a device, specify the number of Fibre Channel ports and create connections between the new device and others. Ideally, the right-click action menu for this sort of device would include telnet, Web access and external program.Although it's more expensive than SANavigator for a small-scale setup, SANView's price scales better, and turns out to be less than half that of SANavigator's large-scale setup price. This package is a good option for SANs with switches from a variety of vendors because it supports a broader range of devices with its zone-management feature than the other products we reviewed.

Softek SANView, $12,595 (as configured), Softek, (408) 746-4990. www.softek.com

CA's Unicenter TNG typifies the manager-of-the-universe class of enterprise-management systems. There are modules and plug-ins for Unicenter to manage everything from mainframes to PDAs. BrightStor SAN Manager is based on the Unicenter infrastructure, and includes such Unicenter features and components as the 3-D user interface and report writer.

Like the other products we tested, BrightStor SAN Manager uses a client-server architecture. Agents, which CA calls proxies, collect data from HBA-equipped hosts; the BrightStor server polls managed devices and stores the data in a SQL Server repository. Clients display the data and manage devices. Unfortunately, unlike many other vendors that use SQL Server for administrative databases, CA has chosen not to include the MSDE-limited version of SQL Server on the BrightStor SAN Manager CD or in the installation program. Perhaps that's because the installation program disk holds more than 600 MB of files and requires at least 1 GB of free disk space to install. In any event, you'll need to have SQL Server up and running before installing SAN Manager.

CA assumes most organizations that would install a SAN management tool are running SQL Server and so could host an additional database. This might be true, but those servers are probably installed with the case-insensitive sort order, and BrightStor SAN Manager requires a server with the case-sensitive sort order. Furthermore, database admins aren't always jubilant over the prospect of adding administrative databases to production database servers. This reluctance could lead to hidden costs for the SQL Server system and license, or even more expensive meetings between the two groups to settle where the SAN Manager database should live.

When you start SAN Manager, following a straightforward (if big) installation, you're presented with the wide variety of Unicenter views into your data, including 2-D and 3-D maps and a SNMP MIB walker. Although this detail will attract existing CA users by presenting a common look and feel, we found the user interface overly complex, busy and confusing. We expected, for example, to find zoom on the View menu, but instead we had to hold the control and right-mouse buttons down while moving the mouse up and down to zoom in and out of the map view.When running a discovery, a text box pops up where the discovery engine runs--a sign of Unicenter's Unix roots. After a short delay, BrightStor SAN Manager discovered more devices on our SAN than the company's compatibility list suggested we should expect. With some limitations, the program let us manage our old Dell PowerVault 50F switch and 35F Fibre Channel-to-SCSI bridge.

Managing zones pops up the separate switch administrator application, which requires an additional user ID and password. While preventing any SAN administrator from bringing the whole network down could be viewed as a security plus, it would be better to allow the master administrator define multiple users and grant them levels of access the way SANavigator does.

CA also sent us BrightStor SAN Designer a Visio plug-in for SAN planning. With SAN Designer you can discover your SAN using the same discovery engine as SAN Manager and then add components and test the configuration.

Despite its occasional advantages, SAN Manager is a bit ponderous. The user interface can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Combine this with SAN Manager's significantly higher cost than the competition, and we can recommend it only to Unicenter users.

BrightStor SAN Manager, priced by server attached to the SAN; the base server is free with prices starting at $1,095 per Windows server managed and $1,495 per Unix server managed; BrightStor SAN Designer, $2,700 per seat, Computer Associates International, (631) 342-6800, (800) 225-5224. www.ca.com/brightstorHoward Marks is founder and chief scientist at Networks Are Our Lives, a network design and consulting firm in Hoboken N.J. Write to him at [email protected].

The storage industry has yet to deliver a standard for managing heterogeneous Fibre Channel SANs, but plenty of vendors have software so you don't have to resort to a kludge of telnet, Web browsers and Visio printouts. Computer Associates, McData and Softek sent us their SAN management software, and we put each through its paces.

These packages automate discovery, visualization, status information, performance monitoring and element management using proprietary interfaces and APIs. Our Editor's Choice, McData's SANavigator, is highly flexible and efficient. We also were impressed with Softek's support for a wide range of devices. You'll need to look over each product's list of compatible devices, particularly for new equipment. In all, these products deliver on their promises to improve on the SAN management experience.

We tested the SAN managers on our in-house storage-area network. Each vendor also gave us remote access to a management station on its lab SAN, so we could evaluate features our hardware didn't support.

The test SAN comprised a Compaq RA4100 disk array; Dell PowerVault 50F (OEM Brocade Silkworm) eight-port Fibre Channel switch; Brocade Silkworm 2800 16-port Fibre Channel switch; Dell PowerVault 35F Fibre Channel to SCSI bridge with DLT7000 tape drive; Gadzoox Bitstrip nine-port hub; two Fibre Channel JBOD enclosures with Seagate and IBM FC drives; a Compaq ProLiant 5500 Server (Windows 2000 Server, Compaq HBA) and an IBM Netfinity 3500 Server (Windows Server 2003, Qlogic 2100 HBA). It also had three whitebox servers: two P4s (with 2.8-GHz, 512 MB of RAM, Windows 2000 Server--one with an LSI Logic 909 HBA, the other with an Emulex 7000E HBA); and one AMD Athlon 900 (51 MB of RAM and a Qlogic 2200 HBA).We installed each program and its agents on all the systems, ran discovery and recorded the findings. Because most of the hardware in our test SAN is relatively old, none of the programs discovered all our devices. We then fired up each program's console to review the maps and explore the available controls for managing the devices discovered and the program.

Following discovery, we set up a zone with one host and one of our JBODs and ran the IOmeter disk I/O benchmark through the switch to review available performance data. Then, we disconnected one host while the benchmark was running to see how each program responded. Each all generated an event and logged it.


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