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SAN troubleshooting: Should your customer fix or replace a problem SAN?

When customers complain about their SAN, before you suggest a replacement, you need to determine with SAN troubleshooting whether the problem is a technical or subjective one. Here's how.

If you've been involved in the storage integration market for longer than a few minutes, you've undoubtedly met a customer who is not happy with his current SAN solution. Your first instinct in such a scenario may be to scream "Yee-haw!" -- or something similar depending on where you live -- as you calculate your commission from a storage system sale and installation. But, before you get too far along that line of thinking, you should instead analyze the customer's problem to determine whether SAN troubleshooting, training or simplification via storage virtualization can solve their problems.

Doing so may mean you won't sell them a new storage system, but it may earn you credibility for life. And, even if you do end up selling the customer a new SAN, the time spent considering their problem and alternative options should ensure that the new system won't be in a similar position in a few years.

The first step, when a customer says they don't like their SAN, is to determine whether there's a technical, non-emotional reason to justify the switch to a new SAN -- or whether they don't like the SAN for less quantifiable reasons.

Technical limitations and how to address them

The most common technical reason is a lack of some sort of resource; capacity and performance are likely candidates.

Many customers are surprised to find out how quickly performance drops as storage capacity is added. It makes sense: Additional capacity corresponds to additional workloads and more drives to be responsible for. Storage systems seldom deliver full performance when the maximum drive count has been reached.

The second technical justification is the performance of the system, its ability -- or lack thereof -- to respond to application requests for data. This problem has become more widespread in recent years thanks to the proliferation of server virtualization, which embeds many random workloads into a few virtual hosts.

In either case, you need to decide whether to recommend augmenting the capabilities of the current system or replacing it with a brand-new system. It might make sense to use one of the new caching appliances to accelerate I/O or even add a separate solid-state disk tier for the most active data sets. While both of these tiers add cost -- SSD especially needs cost justification -- as we discuss in our recent article, "Enhancing Server and Desktop Virtualization with SSD," one of the biggest justifications is extending the life of an existing system. This makes you a hero; you save the customer money while increasing application performance.

Subjective objections and how to address them

Sometimes a customer wants to replace a SAN but doesn't have performance or capacity limitations to justify it. They simply don't like the storage system, often because it is too difficult to use or they're not getting the expected return on the investment because the SAN was expensive to purchase and operate. Most resellers immediately assume this means a storage system replacement. While this is often the case, it's not the only option.

There are three options to consider that allow the customer to keep their current storage investment. The first option is to get the customer more training or, in many cases, introduce them to their first real training. Maybe this has already been offered to the client, but there are many reasons to reintroduce them to the idea. The most common is that the person responsible for storage did not go to formal training; they got on-the-job training from a departing peer. Other possible reasons: It's been too long since the original training or the original instructor wasn't effective.

In addition to training -- or instead of it -- you could also work on making the storage system easier to use. There are two ways to do this, both of which give control of the storage system to another storage software solution. Typically, this means using either a separate storage virtualization product or converting the storage to present itself as NAS storage by using a NAS gateway and assigning all storage to it as a single volume. Storage virtualization is ideal for traditional applications that need shared storage, like databases and application clusters. But if the workloads using shared storage are mostly virtualized servers, converting the whole system to a NAS system could be a very viable option.

If these options aren't practical or if the customer just wants to replace the system because of a bad history with the vendor, then it makes sense to move the customer to a new platform. But in this case, you need to make sure that the new storage solution doesn't face the same fate in just a few years. You accomplish this by listening to the customer and understanding exactly what the problem is. "It's hard to use" is hard to quantify; you need to make sure you know exactly what about the system is hard to use and then articulate to the customer how the new proposed system will handle those previously difficult tasks.

Taking a step back and not rushing to replace the system with another system will, at the very least, increase your credibility in the customer's eyes. It may also ensure that your storage system stays in place for a long time to come.

About the author

George Crump is president of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

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