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Remote Control: Web-Based Management for Network Storage

David Doering

Novell's been running an interesting commercial depicting a set of fish bowls to represent networks. The idea they present is that the world isn't a set of fish bowls, it is one fish tank.

Now, by this time their ad is getting to be a bit repetitive, but it does make an interesting point. In the world of administering networks, there really are no borders. Just clients and data.

So it seems only fitting that the hottest thing going today with administration is Web-based manage- ment tools. They strive to provide the full set of interactive tools that once were only the province of proprietary-installed, on-site-only software. While remote access to network management can take several forms, today's leading edge presents the full administrative palette via nothing more esoteric than the ubiquitous Web browser. There are several great reasons we want to have a browser-based, Web-accessed management system: universal access, standardized approach, and simplicity.

Most administrators today can recall a time when managing a particular server or other piece of network hardware meant using a proprietary tool. This tool would have to be installed on either the network server or on each workstation from which you wanted to access the management tool. The network server approach seemed fairly handy, except for when you were off-site either on your laptop or on a remote system. In this era of everlasting uptime-or at least the expectation of it-how can a system administrator keep that promise off-site with only the traditional server-based management approach?

You can, of course, install the software on your laptop, home computer, or remote system. But then there's this ongoing task of updating it to keep it current with your onsite configuration. Naturally, if you forget to bring your management tool discs with you, you can't do the install. Equally frustrating will be the call from your CIO to remedy a configuration problem right at that moment.

So a tool that will run inside a standard browser is ideal. With such a tool, any system with Internet access can serve as your management console. You'll have true universal access through the first true universal client: the browser.

One of the key advantages of this universally accessible client is the discipline it imposes on administrative application design. To work with any of a given set of Netscape and IE iterations, by definition, browser-based management tools have to work in a similar fashion. The Back button needs to work predictably, the Reload button as well. Because of the current state-of-the-art with HTML/ XML and Java, the onscreen controls cannot be too elaborate.

So instructions and procedures cannot be nearly as elaborate as they might have been with a proprietary tool. This means no more strange surprises at the hands of quirk-happy software designers, like those odd-looking buttons as in one package I saw: the button displayed a street with a line down the middle. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what this meant until I asked one of the product's engineers. "Oh, that's the 'Hit-the-road' button. You know, Exit."

In the emerging era of browser-based management tools, all exits will be clearly marked.


Survey Says...

Lucent Technologies' worldwide services division (formerly International Network Services) conducted a survey of network administrators regarding Web-based tools. To no one's surprise, the demand for such tools is strong. Ninety-four percent of the 127 participants said that these tools were "important to implement," while 82% of those surveyed said they would be implementing them in less than six months from the time of the survey.

It is interesting to note that 43% of those responding thought that "lack of experienced staff" was one of the primary challenges facing Web-based tools. One respondent simply called the tools "people-centric" as opposed to our all-too-often techno-centered approaches.


Content Management

So why is all of this so important today for digital content, and why are so many folks voicing strong opinions on the topic? Years ago, the idea of shared online content and network-based asset management being important to a company seemed ridiculous. Management tools held all the fascination of a plumber's snake or a mechanic's torque wrench-all things to somebody but nothing to everyone else. Not so today.

Let's take a typical design studio as an example. Twenty years ago, all the studio's assets would have been on hardcopy (paper or film). Illustrations, ads, invoices, customer requirements, and a myriad of other things drawn by the art department would be on paper somewhere on-site. TV commercials, slide presentations, and stock photos would all be on film. Again, stored somewhere on-site.

About 15 years ago, a lot of the front office stuff-bills, receipts, schedules, etc.-would be stored on a single accounting PC. A few years later, this moved to an in-house LAN. Maintaining that network became pretty important. The loss of the client list or current billing status would be crippling. And it's gotten more complex now.

Things have accelerated in the last five years to the point that it's not just this design studio's financial records at issue, it is this studio's entire production-all of its intellectual assets-that is now not just developed but stored on the network. There simply isn't any company left without the network.

And this trend isn't just from the inside. Clients too look to network access with the design studio. They want access to their stored materials as well for review, approval, and retrieval. And there's a whole generation of current and potential ecommerce clients who actually wants to view, select, and purchase content directly from a company's Web site, all without any physical contact with the studio at all.

Bottom line: in today's studio, the loss of the network means the loss of the business. It is no longer possible simply to reconstruct things from hardcopy. There's no hardcopy left. The network has become the core business asset.

In this scenario, superior management is critical to safeguarding the company and its assets. The company with the best management will have the competitive edge in the market.


What to Look For

If we all agree that maintaining our content storage and keeping our access channels up and running are vital to the survival of our business endeavors, then what are we looking for in an ideal interface?

Essential elements of ideal Web-based management can be broken down into seven areas: error latency, resolution latency, transition ease, expanded notification, predictive analysis, interface enhancement, and platform-independent support.

Error latency-How fast can you learn about an error condition? Is there provision for imminent alerts or only post-failure notification? If you are using a dedicated on-site console, you introduce at least some latency simply by not being physically present at that terminal to receive messages. Using local and remote consoles helps to reduce this latency, but only a universal client (i.e., browser-based tool) provides for the least amount of latency.

Resolution latency-How fast can you resolve the error condition? Say your management system supports pager notifications. So you have a very low latency when an error or failure is either imminent or has occurred. However, you are now remote from the on-site console. This scenario again introduces a delay in your response time to the problem. A universal client, properly designed, would provide both a status screen and a set of tools to resolve all error conditions that can be handled remotely. (Clearly, a hardware component failure cannot be remotely repaired, but activating a hot-spare drive or system should be one of the tools in the browser screen.)

Transition ease-How quickly can new personnel be brought up to speed on your system? In the old paradigm, lab-coated gurus would take young initiates into the sacred realm of some arcane tool to manage their systems, often over a period of years. Today, that simply won't work. The gurus move on too quickly to other positions or even jobs outside the company. The initiates don't have time to assimilate these tools to become productive. They need to be productive now. A universal tool like a browser-based system is a key advance in meeting this need.

Expanded notification-It is not just the systems administrator who benefits from using a Web-based tool, in terms of access to status information and error notifications. A good Web tool will provide various levels of information based on the needs and access level of the viewer. A dedicated tool is typically the province of only the admin and no one else. If you want to know if a given system is up and running, or if it is suffering from some fault, you'll have to put in a call to the company IT manager. Not so if there's an accessible universal client. Who hasn't, for example, been unable to connect to certain Web sites and wanted to know why? Wouldn't it be nice to view some type of screen to provide some details about a system failure? Keeping senior management in the loop is extremely wise when it comes to content access. Keep the CEO in the dark, and you may be in the dark about your future as well.

Predictive analysis-How well can the IT team monitor storage use and capacity with the tool? Having documented information (which upper management can also view) can provide a shortened path to needed system upgrades.

Interface enhancements-How quickly can your management tool vendor provide needed upgrades and enhancements? One area that consumes the vendor's time and development budget is making a tool that will run reliably on multiple platforms. Xenix, Windows, Macintosh, Linux, etc., all require discrete incarnations of a tool to work effectively. Not so with a browser-based solution. Instead, the vendor can devote resources to enhancing the one interface to be simpler, more comprehensive, and more reliable. The use of a universal client tool is a benefit to you indirectly through the product vendor.

Platform-Independent Support-Does your network include multiple operating systems (both on clients and/or servers)? Anyone who has tried to get Macs and PCs to live comfortably together knows how difficult this can be. A browser-based tool provides the kind of universal platform that is operating system-irrespective. Can't get Microsoft tools to see Novell services reliably? Want to manage your NT-based NSM jukebox from a Mac? A Web-based tool eases this problem.


The Downside to Web-based Management

You might suspect that after reaching this management nirvana that there might just be a dark cloud inside your silver lining. There is one, but one that can be overcome.

Since the browser-based tool is universally accessible, it means that network security becomes critical and potentially more difficult to enforce. You'll need to maintain password protection (with frequent changes, difficult -to-guess passwords, etc.) to keep the tool (and your network) from being compromised.

For example, it is all too easy to send an email message to someone in the field showing the IP address, username, and password to enable that user to run the browser tool. Even the telephone would be safer.


Meet one Candidate: Asaca's Digital Virtual Library

Storage vendors have taken notice of the demand for Web-based network administration and are producing more and more browser-based solutions. Asaca and NSM Storage both offer such tools for their leading-edge jukeboxes. Next month's issue will include a comprehensive review of the newest NSM jukebox and its browser-based management tool. But Asaca's Digital Virtual Library interface merits special attention here because it covers so many of our criteria for an ideal browser-based network storage management system. (Visit Asaca's Web site at www.asaca.com/system/vlconfig. shtml for a demonstration of how its application works.)

The Asaca tool's interface supports three different levels of access: user, operator, and administrator. This provides the appropriate types of services to each class. System and drive status are provided for the user, performance statistics and media management for the operator, and complete system control for the administrator. No one is left in the dark about whether the system is online, or how well it is doing.

For example, the comprehensive performance statistics screen, which operators can view, covers all the operating parameters of the jukebox. Power on hours, magazine changes, uptime since last reset, interior temperature, and power status are all reported.

For users, system, magazine, and drive status are critical concerns. The Drive Status screen, for example, shows you not just whether the drive is online or not, but also if it is empty or occupied, and if it has been subject to any load failures or warnings.

A wonderfully delightful feature on the Asaca User menu is "Documentation". This provides a shortcut to the complete Asaca manual right from this screen-eliminating the need to wander over to the company Web site and drill down to it.

And Asaca has certainly done its homework with the Service Page as well. This provides the user with both contact name and, probably most importantly of all, Service Notes about the system. Anyone who has had to call tech support knows how frustrating it can be to not have this kind of information near at hand. Kudos to Asaca for this one!

Of course, the administrator side of things is also fairly comprehensive in this Asaca tool. I like the SCSI addressing summary in particular. IP configuration, though, is handled through the Cabinet configuration page, rather than the Library page. The interface does show clearly (on the right) which particular jukebox you are looking at. This allows the tool to scale to multiple libraries as required.


Wider than the Web

A browser-based approach has many advantages to offer both vendors and end-users. A single-product tool, however, isn't going to replace a comprehensive management system like an HP OpenView or CA's Unicenter. Those provide a single, unified approach to a complex enterprise-scale network and all its compliant components. Those systems, though, require both a significant budget and a good deal of training to make them effective and useful. Meanwhile, for the 80% of the market, we'll look towards simpler browser-based tools.

Asaca's Digital Virtual Library browser interface provides today's current benchmark for a comprehensive and easy-to-use management tool.

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