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Putting Data to Work for E-Business in SAN Installation and Deployment

For several years now, analysts have been saying that we have left behind the Industrial Age and entered the Information Age. Increasingly, information is the raw material for developing competitive differentiation and value add.

But in today's rapidly evolving business environment, making effective use of information is an increasingly challenging task. The pace of change is so fast (and the volume of information has become so great) that information technology (IT) systems can become choke points rather than the enablers of efficient information exchange.

To flourish in the Information Age, a company must be able to make information as pervasive and easily accessible as electricity or telephone service. Such a corporate information utility would permit on-demand exchange of information across functional and departmental lines, forging new connections to customers and suppliers. Finding practical and affordable ways to link everyone to the flow of information has become a strategic necessity.

The Changing Environment

The advent of Internet technology has transformed today's business environment into a highly competitive, expanding, unpredictable, networked economy. Over the past few years, it has become apparent that success in this new business environment depends on one thing: adaptability.

Successful businesses around the world have been transforming themselves through a series of stages from traditional make-and-sell organizations into sense-and-respond organizations: more responsive, more flexible, and more adaptive. Ultimately, these businesses view the enterprise as a dynamic and adaptive collection of capabilities that can be quickly reconfigured to create customer value.

The key to adaptability (and delivering increased value profitably) is to become what Gartner Group calls a zero-latency organization, one that has the ability to exchange information immediately for purposes of gaining an edge. Success in today's extremely competitive business environment depends on a company's ability to adapt (continuously and rapidly) to changing conditions by immediately accessing and processing information for driving strategic business decisions.

Unfortunately, many organizations are finding an unexpected roadblock on the way to zero latency: their information technology systems. Many corporate computing environments are built to solve specific tactical rather than strategic concerns. The result is separate islands of information that can leave a company at a competitive disadvantage.

What's required is a zero-latency computing environment, one that enables the free, immediate exchange of information. But the development of such a system poses a number of challenging technical and management questions.

The Challenges

Probably the single greatest challenge to the development of a zero-latency computing environment is the enormous growth of business data. Even before the advent of electronic commerce, it was estimated that new front-office business applications (such as enterprise resource-planning suites) were resulting in an annual doubling of corporate data.

With e-business, that rate of increase is compounded. Information is the currency of e-business, the elemental medium of exchange. As a result, as organizations make the transition from traditional business to static Web serving to performing actual business transactions via the Internet or extranets, they can see information volume increase eightfold. Before they can profit from this unprecedented wealth of information, most organizations face the challenge of finding an affordable way to store and manage it.

This rate of growth has serious implications across a number of other areas as well. For example, globalization and e-business each demand 24 x 7 x 365 information availability. Not only does this mean investing in redundant systems to ensure that critical information is available even during a hardware or software failure, but it also means that the amount of time available for backups, updates, and maintenance is drastically reduced or eliminated.

The information explosion also can have unexpected impact on system performance. Take, for example, an e-commerce site that must retrieve information from and update a corporate inventory system8. To enable the Web transactions, information must flow back and forth across the corporate LAN. As the volume of Web hits increases, the LAN can become choked, slowing response times to unacceptable levels—not just for the inventory and Web applications, but for every application that must send information across that same network.

Finally, there are the complications of managing information in a heterogeneous environment. The staff must be prepared to deal with a variety of operating systems and user interfaces. In addition, limited integration between products from different vendors will likely require separate management tools and control points. In addition to requiring investments in redundant skills and management software, the process is very labor-intensive because staff must perform the same functions multiple times across multiple servers. The results are less efficient information management and a higher total cost of computing.

These challenges define a new set of requirements for a corporate computing environment. In order to enable a company to make efficient use of increasing volumes of information, a corporate computing system must:

  1. Provide a solution that addresses strategic business needs rather than individual computing requirements.

  2. Be transparent to business applications.

  3. Reuse existing hardware, software, and skills.

  4. Provide centralized management of information and devices.

  5. Work across a heterogeneous environment.

  6. Provide flexibility necessary for rapid response to changing conditions while controlling costs7.

The distributed computing environments typical in business today, which tie information to a single server, lack the flexibility to meet these needs. But a relatively new approach to information management, known as the storage area network (SAN), promises to provide the foundation for the development of the corporate information utility.

The Promise of SANs

As previously explained, a SAN is a high-speed network dedicated to information management. More formally, a SAN is a combination of technologies (including hardware, software, and networking components) that provides any-to-any interconnection of server and storage elements.

By separating information management from information processing, a SAN provides the flexibility required to meet the new computing requirements defined in the preceding. More to the point, by enabling the free, immediate exchange of information, a SAN provides the foundation for a zero-latency computing environment.

SANs are based on a fabric of Fibre Channel hubs, switches, and gateways connecting storage devices (such as disk arrays, optical disks, and tape libraries) and servers on a many-to-many basis. Application and transaction servers are attached to both the SAN and to local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs), creating what appears to be a massive pool of data.

SANs can be configured to provide servers in different locations with direct access to huge amounts of shared storage resources. A SAN also can enable direct storage-to-storage connectivity (for example, between multiple disk arrays or between a disk array and a tape library), allowing management activities such as backups and archiving to take place independent of any server.

Inherent in the promise of SANs are two compelling advantages. The first is the creation of a true information utility. By eliminating the one-to-one relationship between individual servers and critical business data to create a corporate information bank, a SAN can make that information readily available across the enterprise.

The second advantage is that a SAN can provide a faster, more effective way to deal with rapidly increasing volumes of information. With a separate information-management network, additional capacity can be plugged in as needed with minimal impact on the performance of application or transaction servers, LANs or WANs.

SANs promise more responsive and robust systems as well. For example, by reducing the amount of traffic that must travel along corporate networks, installing a SAN has the effect of increasing available bandwidth. The result is response times that are well matched to the requirements of e-business.

Performance is further enhanced by improved backup and recovery capabilities. With a SAN, backup and recovery can take place without involving either the existing LAN or WAN or the individual application or transaction servers.

In addition, with information no longer tied to any one server in particular, failure of a single server is less likely to degrade information availability. SANs will support advanced multiserver clustering solutions for new levels of information availability and business continuity. And SANs permit near-real-time updates of remote disaster recovery sites for higher levels of disaster tolerance.

Management also is greatly simplified. A SAN permits the use of a common set of tools and a single point of control to manage a centralized pool of information. As a technology marrying storage, servers, networking, and systems management, SAN requires an unprecedented level of cross-discipline expertise.

Finally, storage area networks today are where e-business was just a few years ago. It is clear that they can play a critical part in establishing a competitive edge in today's dynamic global business environment, but many organizations regard them with confusion or outright skepticism.

Like e-business, the promise of SANs is compelling; a SAN offers the ability to connect to more people, handle the incredible growth of business data, and respond more quickly to customer wants and needs. But, like e-business, it will require an holistic, multidisciplinary approach to deliver the full benefits of SANs in the least amount of time.

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