Remote Control: Web-Based Management for Network Storage
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.