Many of the preventable issues that occur in a SAN fabric can be avoided by using the right management and monitoring software. One way to get this software is to create or adapt open source packages. While I really like the idea (and price) of roll-your-own solutions, it is not always practical. Apart from the fact that you need to have staff with the relevant skills to do this, long-term maintenance can prove difficult when key people move on. Unfortunately the other extreme (which is far more common) is that many shops actually do nothing at all, ending up without any overall SAN management and monitoring methodology.
An ideal off the shelf solution alternative in a Brocade SAN fabric is to use IBM Network Advisor, the successor product to Data Center Fabric Manager (DCFM). IBM Network Advisor actually has its heritage in a great product called EFCM (Enterprise Fabric Connectivity Manager), that Brocade picked up when they bought McData . I loved working with EFCM and McData switches, especially the McData 6140, which was truly a great SAN director. When Brocade purchased McData they combined EFCM with their own Fabric Manager to create DCFM. They have since combined it with their Network switch management software to create Network Advisor, bringing things to a whole new level. The IBM announcement letter for this software is here.
Now the first thing you may be wondering is: OK so this software sounds great, but how much will it cost? The good news is that trying it out wont cost you anything. It’s free to download and trial for 75 days. You can find the download site here.
To demo it, you can spin up a Windows 2008 guest from a template in your favorite Hypervisor. This means you don’t even need to request separate hardware to do this trial.
So what benefits should you expect to see? Well first up I am talking about preventing issues like these:
- Mistakes made when performing zoning updates
- Failure to create regular configuration backups (which especially hurts after a switch failure)
- Difficulties upgrading firmware or simply too many upgrades to get through
- Poor (or no) switch and performance monitoring
- Poor (or no) error notification (including notification back to IBM)
- Difficulty collecting log data
- Lack of report creation software
In some ways you can sum up the benefits of the software quite easily by looking at the three central menus of IBM Network Advisor: Configure, Monitor, Report.
To give you a view of some of the menu choices, you can see just how rich the options are:
From a configuration perspective you can manage the zonesets of all your fabrics from the one place. This means you don’t need to jump between switches. More importantly it gives you a clear indication of what a zoning update is adding AND removing. Accidental removal of a required zone is a very common cause of zoning related SAN issues:
It can automatically backup your switch configurations. Backing up your configs is frankly a mandatory task that is routinely never done. If a switch fails, then any customization and zoning (if it is a single switch fabric) is lost. This can be a major issue, especially if a business partner or former employee set the switch up. If we schedule a regular backup you won’t need to remember, because IBM Network Advisor will do it for you:
Firmware updates also become a far simpler affair. IBM Network Advisor has a built-in FTP server and happily acts as a firmware repository. If you’re facing a set of Kangaroo hops, this is a great way to make the whole process very very simple. It will perform compatibility checks before you start and also act as a repository for both firmware and release notes (which is a really nice touch).
From a monitoring perspective, the ability to set up call home to IBM is a huge advantage and a vital step in building a SAN with the highest levels of availability. The added bonus is that you can use IBM Network Advisor to generate a supportsave (a log offload file that you will invariably be asked for during trouble shooting) off every switch in your fleet in one go (you can also set it up to perform this on a regular basis), significantly boosting productivity and aiding in trouble shooting. You can also set up Fabric Watch across the entire fleet of switches, all from a single interface.
If you own DCFM already, then you are eligible for a free upgrade. If after trialing the software you feel that the significant availability benefits this software will give you are worth achieving, talk to your IBM Sales Rep or Business Partner to get a price. I personally think you will find it very reasonable, plus I guarantee that it will not be shelfware and will prove to be a vital tool in getting the most from your SAN.
But… if after trialling IBM Network Advisor you’re still determined to try to avoid paying for software, then you could always consider the open-source alternative (rather than do nothing). Check out this document written by Andy Loftus and Chad Kerner from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. It’s a great example of a lessons learning document that describes how they built their own monitoring solution. You will find all of their documents and scripts here. As I said, roll-your-own might avoid vendor costs, but they have costs all of their own. Does your team have the skills, willpower and time to do this and maintain it? I would love to hear about your experiences either way.