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Use policy-based automation to improve data protection

Storage automation feature sets vary from vendor to vendor, but many of them have functionality that can ease data protection and DR processes.

Storage automation is probably best known for its use in storage provisioning, but it can also be useful for data protection.

Each vendor has its own approach to storage automation and there are a wide variety of features that fall under the automated data storage umbrella.

The most obvious way in which storage automation can be used for data protection is through automated data replication. Policy-based automation can make this tried-and-true data protection technique much more flexible than previously possible.

Automating storage replication

Traditionally, replication could be defined at the storage array level or perhaps at the LUN level. Regardless of the method used, there had to be a degree of consistency between the source and the target. If replication was performed at the storage hardware level, for instance, the source and target storage arrays were typically required to be identical (or at least identical sizes).

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that everything on the array needs to be replicated. This not only drives up hardware costs (because of the matching hardware requirement), but it can also impact the speed of replication. In every organization, there is likely to be data and/or virtual machines (VMs) -- such as redundant domain controllers -- that simply do not need to be replicated. If replication occurs at the storage hardware level, then network bandwidth and storage I/O is consumed by replicating unnecessary items.

Policy-based storage automation has the potential to improve the efficiency of the replication process, while also driving down costs. Again, every vendor offers a different feature set, but there are products that enable the replication topology to be virtualized, allowing the entire replication process to be customized. Storage admins can then create policies that perform replication at the VM level or even the virtual hard disk level. Furthermore, the abstraction layer makes it possible to replicate data between dissimilar storage. For instance, an organization might replicate the contents of a physical storage array to a virtual SAN or cloud storage.

Failing operations to secondary, off-site storage has been a pain point for many organizations. Storage automation makes it possible to automate the failover process. Some tasks that can be automated include shutting down the original VMs, specifying the boot order of the VMs in the remote location, and assigning new IP addresses to the replica virtual machines.

Policy-based automation and DR testing

Policy-based storage automation has the potential to improve the efficiency of the replication process, while also driving down costs.

Automation is also extremely useful when it comes to testing an organization's disaster recovery (DR) plan. In the past, DR testing was difficult because it tended to be time-consuming and potentially disruptive to business operations and the backup process.

Modern DR testing often revolves around the use of storage or VM snapshots. Even though it is usually possible to create these snapshots manually, automation makes the recovery testing process a lot easier. This is especially true when it comes to testing the recovery of multi-tier applications. Such applications often span multiple servers and an automated process is able to create a snapshot recovery environment for each required server (including infrastructure servers such as domain controllers or DNS servers). The automated routine can create an isolated virtual network segment that connects the various components to one another (without exposing them to the production network) and assigns an IP address to each VM.

There are many different ways policy-based storage automation can be used to improve your data protection and disaster recovery operations. Your options will vary depending on which vendor's products your organization uses. The key is to evaluate the automation features that are available to you and then make use of those with the greatest potential.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's MVP award for Exchange Server, Windows Server and Internet Information Server. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and has been responsible for the Department of Information Management at Fort Knox. Visit Brien's personal website.

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