HP pushes unified storage for the masses

Automatic migration of Exchange and SQL Server data from app servers to the shared storage is great but data files for other apps have to be moved manually.


My favorite feature in Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 is the recently added support for Internet SCSI targets that complements traditional file sharing via Common Internet File System (CIFS), Network File System (NFS) and other protocols. And it looks like I'm not the only one who likes this capability: Hewlett-Packard was quick to build on that foundation for its two new storage systems.

The StorageWorks AiO (All-in-One) 600 -- a six-drive, 5U enclosure that comes in tower and rack-mountable configurations -- reaps the benefits of Windows Storage Server 2003 R2's file sharing. It includes HP's All-in-One Storage Manager (ASM), an application based on the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) that promises to bring storage administration within the reach of customers with little networked storage experience.

Setting up and starting out

I got an early peek at the AiO 600, and it's impressively built. With six 250GB SATA (serial advanced technology attachment) drives, my test machine had a nominal capacity of 1.5TB, but you can double that by mounting 500GB drives. You can further expand capacity connecting an HP MSA20 -- or MSA30 or MSA50 -- storage enclosure in the background.

If faster performance is a more pressing requirement, HP offers speedier 146GB SAS (serial attached SCSI) drives on the 600 model. HP also bundles a licence for Data Protector Express with the AiO models. Using that, you can schedule backups directly from ASM.

After connecting the AiO 600's 3GbE (Gbit/sec Ethernet) port to the network, I powered up. ASM appeared automatically on my screen, suggesting that I run Rapid Startup, a wizard that helps set up network connectivity, email error notification and other housekeeping tasks.

That done, I installed an ASM agent on each application server, which also verified the presence of - and eventually installed - required components such as the .Net framework, the iSCSI initiator and the Volume Shadow Copy provider for iSCSI.

MMC provides access to all native Windows tools, but ASM helps with only four tasks: migrating Exchange 2003 and SQL Server 2000/2005 databases from a local drive, assigning storage to a custom application and creating new shares. That may not seem to be much, but it's enough to be a great help if you are new to networked storage. The ASM scripts automate unfamiliar tasks such as carving logical unit numbers (LUN) from the RAID controller, creating iSCSI targets, and configuring the iSCSI initiator on the application server to access those targets. Moreover, the wizards will help you schedule automated snapshots and backups.

Migration made easy

I began my test by migrating a SQL Server database. After asking the name of the app server, the ASM wizard automatically discovered my database and suggested two separate RAID 10 volumes to host the tables and the log file.

I set the wizard to schedule a daily backup of the database and to take a snapshot every two hours. ASM gave me a summary page to review the script it had automatically generated, a list of 12 distinct tasks, including preparing the LUN, creating the iSCSI targets and setting the schedule for the snapshots.

It took only minutes to complete that script, after which I found my SQL server database completely moved to a new iSCSI volume on the AiO 600. ASM also automatically modified the data location in SQL server so that my SQL queries worked without a problem. Migrating a database from local to networked storage doesn't get any easier than this. In the real world, you will probably do a backup (or two) first and perhaps run the ASM script after hours, but it's still that easy.

ASM moved my Exchange 2003 server database with similar simplicity, but other applications don't get the same full service. For example, I was able to allocate space for an old personal information manager application, but ASM did not automatically move the data files. I had to do that using Windows Explorer and then manually point the application to the new volume. The same is true for shared folders. It isn't a major concern -- you don't have to be a storage guru to perform these manual tasks -- but it would be nice to have the automatic transfers available to all apps.

Easy snapshot management is another good reason to consider the AiO 600. In addition to a flexible schedule, you can automatically increase the frequency during peak hours. ASM also gives you easy access to your snapshots. From ASM, you can open an access path from any application server to your snapshots. The only annoyance is that you must create a dedicated directory on your server for each snapshot because the system doesn't allow more than one in a folder.

Bumps in the road

I ran into a few other speed bumps using the AiO 600. When I tried migrating a SQL server database that I had installed after the ASM agent, for example, the script failed with a cryptic error message. Reinstalling the ASM agent on the database machine fixed the problem, but I had to first call HP to figure out the reason for that error.

Also, when a script fails, ASM doesn't bring the storage system back to the status quo ante and can leave you with unallocated chunks of storage that will never be used. A skilled administrator can fix that condition manually outside of ASM, but dropping the ball when there's an error seems to defeat the purpose of a system meant to help inexperienced people easily manage storage.

Having said that, I still recommend the AiO 600 and ASM. The potential for getting these types of errors is limited, and the system is easy to use. Plus, HP's three-year warranty on hardware and software should cover your system until you learn enough about networked storage to be comfortable using the basic Windows tools.

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