ISCSI SAN server management is a very weak link

Compellent offers only bright spot in sea of tools riddled with errors, aggravations

In the storage business, a popular metric for measuring management costs is to compute "T-byte/FTE", which is how many TB a FTE can manage. While that may seem a bit over the top at first glance, based on some of the truly abysmal management models we witnessed throughout this testing cycle, we think it's a reasonable assumption.

In the storage business, a popular metric for measuring management costs is to compute "T-byte/FTE", which is how many TB a full-time employee can manage. While that may seem a bit over the top at first glance, based on some of the truly abysmal management models we witnessed throughout this testing cycle, we think it's a reasonable assumption.

All products tested have graphical user interfaces, generally either Web- or Java-based. These GUIs ranged from the one outstanding representative we found in Compellent's StorageCenter down through a range of good-to-average products to ones that could use significant improvement, such as those currently shipping with the D-Link DSN-3200-10, the Reldata Unified Storage Gateway and the StoneFly Storage Concentrator.

Some products also have command-line interface (CLI) access, including the Dell PS5000XV, FalconStor NSS-S12, HP StorageWorks 2012i, Kano NetCOR 7500, and the NetApp FAS2050. Having access via a CLI is useful, especially when performing repeated operations (such as when we were creating 16 virtual disks during installation), but normal day-to-day operations should not require the CLI, that is, if the GUI is well-designed.

With both the Kano and NetApp products, it's clear that the GUI is discouraged in favor of the CLI. In fact, the NetApp FAS2050 really cannot be entirely managed via the GUI — significant portions of it require CLI access, a sign of the incremental development of NetApp's products. Based on our testing, NetApp has long passed the point where a complete user interface and terminology redesign are required. For example, the NetApp FAS2050 was the only device in our testing that required managing the two different controllers in the appliance as completely separate elements — even though they were bound into a cluster. While NetApp does offer software that can unify multiple controllers, no other vendors required added code to present a unified view of their device in the management system.

Main management requirements

For our tests, we didn't explore every nook and cranny of the management interfaces of these systems, but looked in four key areas: configuration, monitoring, alerting and reporting.

Configuration was generally easy overall throughout testing, although we did bump into some extreme rough spots. Compellent's StorageCenter, Dell's PS5000XV, HP's StorageWorks 2012i, Kano's NetCOR 7500, LeftHand Networks NSM 2120, and Nexsan's SATABeast all came up and started sharing data a few minutes after initial power-on, without undue drama or stress. We got through NetApp's FAS2050 as well, once we understood that we had to do everything twice. Similarly, D-Link's GUI took some getting used to, but we figured it out even if it took longer than necessary for what is essentially a simple product.

We were less satisfied with the configuration models presented by the Celeros EzSANFiler XD34S, FalconStor NSS-S12, Reldata Unified Storage Gateway, and StoneFly Storage Concentrator. In each case, the iSCSI storage controller is managed somewhat separately from the actual disk array being offered. In the case of the FalconStor product, for example, the disk controller is an internal Acera controller which is completely unmanaged by the FalconStor GUI. That means that configuration, status information, and anything else to do with how the physical disks are actually organized into RAID arrays are completely separate from the rest of the GUI.

We've got a similar beef with the Celeros product. The company has made a half-hearted attempt to let you jump between its Web interface and the RAID controller interface, although doing so requires a separate authentication step and an understanding that you're really managing two unintegrated products through the same web browser.

Reldata's Unified Storage Gateway caught our eye for another reason: the GUI is overly complicated and detailed, so much so that it would be impossible to actually generate correct configurations if you didn't use the built-in wizards. This was certainly the most difficult GUI to use in this test. For example, we were able to set up SYSLOG so that it was sending log data to our central server, but we were never able to find that setting again — and SYSLOG never appears in the documentation we were given.

Ongoing storage monitoring

Monitoring was another part of the management system into which we took a deep dive. Simple questions -- such as which iSCSI initiators are using which virtual disks, how much CPU and memory capacity are in use, and how much disk I/O is occurring -- should be easy to view. Unfortunately, only the Compellent StorageCenter and the NetApp FAS2050 brought these simple statistics and reports summarizing them out to where they could be easily seen.

Each of the other products had some strange dysfunction in these relatively simple areas. For example, Dell's PS5000XV would give us physical disk statistics, but not virtual disk statistics. That's interesting, but not very useful as you don't manage physical disks at all in the PS5000XV -- only virtual disks. Although, Dell did tug at our heart strings by automatically generating a multi-router traffic generator config file to help in integrating monitoring of a Dell array with existing common tools. But if the statistics aren't helpful, it doesn't matter how easy it was to get them.

Reporting and alerting

Some of the iSCSI systems we tested had the ability to continuously report on a wide variety of performance statistics. This feature was easy to use and gave us useful and timely statistics in the Compellent StorageCenter, HP StorageWorks 2012i and Kano NetCOR 7500. Reldata's Unified Storage Gateway looked like it had nice reporting, except that its performance monitors wouldn't display in our GUI. Similarly, StoneFly looked good at first glance, until we actually tried to get useful data out of the report, which ended up being more of an endurance and color discrimination test than a source of useful information.

The only product we tested that had a traditional reporting tool to generate regular reports for offline viewing was the FalconStor NSS-S12.

Finally, we looked for logging and alerting tools to help integrate these devices into existing network management schemes. Surprisingly, we found that only a few of the products we tested were willing to link with existing SYSLOG logging servers and SNMP network management tools. Compellent's StorageCenter supported both SYSLOG and SNMP, as did Dell's PS5000XV, NetApp's FAS2050, Nexsan's SATAbeast and Reldata's Unified Storage Gateway. Celeros' EzSANFiler and HP's StorageWorks 2012i supported SNMP, but not SYSLOG.

LeftHand Networks' NSM 2120 did support SYSLOG and SNMP, although the SYSLOG configuration interface ranks in our books as one of the most difficult we've used. Rather than simply pointing log files to a SYSLOG server, you have to individually configure each of about 30 log files to send their data to a SYSLOG server — and you have to repeat this process for each individual storage module in your configuration. (LeftHand had a similarly overly complex and tedious interface for its alerting system.)

Alerting features in these devices also ranged from bad to good. We were specifically looking for the ability to configure alerts via e-mail or SNMP traps. In the case of e-mail alerting, we wanted useful information to show up in the messages (not, for example, "Severe error has happened. Please check the event log for more information," which is what our D-Link sent by way of an alert) and we wanted the ability to set the level of severity for which alerts would occur. The best examples were in the Dell PS5000XV, FalconStor NSS-S12, HP StorageWorks 2012i, and Kano NetCOR 7500. For example, the HP StorageWorks 2012i let us set up our e-mail and SNMP servers and recipients on one screen, then pick which of the categories we wanted to send to each on another. Or, if we wanted to get into detailed configuration, a third screen let us pick each of the different types of alerts and turn it on for e-mail, SNMP or Web-based alerting.

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