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Hardware Today: SANs for the Common Man

Monday Feb 28th 2005 by Drew Robb

Simplification, higher speeds, greater interoperability, and lower price points are some of the key trends reshaping the SAN landscape.

For most of their relatively short lifespan, storage-area networks (SANs) have garnered a deserved reputation for expense and complexity. By all indication, however, that is changing in a big way. Simplification, higher speeds, greater interoperability, and lower price points are some of the key trends reshaping the SAN landscape.

"The biggest trend this year is iSCSI," said Mike Karp, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "We are seeing an increased incidence of iSCSI in the enterprise."

SANs began life as a Fibre Channel (FC) only technology. FC required expert storage practitioners and expensive gear to assemble a SAN. Thus, only the largest enterprises could afford them. But that's changing rapidly, hastened by the advance of IP-based storage networking. IP SANs use both the Internet and the iSCSI protocol to provide centralized storage that is affordable to small and midsize businesses (SMBs). The familiarity of these protocols makes SANs a breeze to install and maintain — compared to FC.

The popularity of IP SANs seems to have come out of nowhere — IDC figures show the market at $19 million in 2003, $85 million in 2004, and $296 million forecasted this year. The research firm projects that the market will explode to $2.7 billion by 2008. Initially, this growth was fueled by a cadre of start-ups, including as LeftHand Networks and StoneFly.

The success of iSCSI is reflected in the vendors now offering IP SANs. HP and EMC, two of the giants of FC-SAN disk arrays, now also offer an impressive range of IP-based solutions.

"Because SMBs have the same needs as large enterprises, customers are evaluating a variety of IP SAN offerings," said Tom Major, chief strategy office for LeftHand Networks. "We are also starting to see Fortune 1000 companies establish IP SANs in tandem with their existing FC SANs."

The success of iSCSI is reflected in the vendors now offering IP SANs. HP and EMC, two of the giants of FC-SAN disk arrays, now also offer an impressive range of IP-based solutions. But the leader in this space is Network Appliance, with 43.1 percent, followed by EMC, with 22.1 percent.

EMC, has added iSCSI to its entire Clariion line. At the low end, the Clariion AX100 is available for around $6,000. The AX100 provides 1 GB of cache and up to 3 TB of SATA-based storage.

"Some customers will be comfortable with iSCSI while others prefer to stick with FC," said Marty Lans, director of storage networking at EMC Corp. "Those who need the most bandwidth can either have an FC SAN now or wait for IP SAN technology to catch up."

Simpler SANs

iSCSI may open the door to far easier SAN implementations, but its popularity is being paralleled in the FC arena, as these SAN vendors try make the technology less obscure. As a result, easy-install SANs and starter kits that aim to reduce back-end complexity to a few clicks are hitting the market.

Here, HP excels. It has streamlined the ordering, deployment, and configuration of SANs via its EVA 3000 Starter Kit and MSA 1000 Small Business SAN. Similarly, storage switch vendor Brocade Communications Systems has developed a "5-click" SAN configuration GUI — five clicks, though, refers only to a relatively simple SAN.

"To make it easier for an SMB to deploy a SAN, we are working with OEMs to integrate SAN switching into storage arrays and to provide easy-to-use SAN management tools," said Tom Buiocchi, vice president of worldwide marketing at Brocade. "We are also seeing tighter integration of SAN infrastructure into bladed servers."

Brocade is currently shipping an embedded switch module for the IBM eServer BladeCenter. HP, Dell, and other OEMs also have plans to ship embedded SAN switches in blade servers this year.

Speed Demons

It seems like only yesterday vendors were heralding the arrival of 1 Gbit per second FC performance. Today, 2 Gbit per second is the norm, and in 2005 this will change to 4 Gbit per second. Brocade was the first to ship a 4 Gbit per second SAN switch in 2004 (the Brocade SilkWorm 4100 switch), and others are following suit. The hurdle now is justification — most applications hardly even use 2 Gbit per sec.

"The infrastructure leads the storage," explains EMC's Lans. "Once 4 Gbit is in place, you will see applications begin to take advantage of it."

High-speed backup, streaming video, digital content, high-speed transaction processing, and inter-switch links are some of the primary application candidates. Next-generation LTO tape drives, for example, will require the fatter pipe provided by 4 Gbit/sec Fibre Channel. Additionally, 4 Gbit per second disk arrays will be more common later this year.

>> Interoperability

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

If everything is whizzing along and the various devices and applications can't talk to one another, the need for speed is moot. So another big push in storage is interoperability. SAN specs, such as SMI-S from the Storage Networking Industry Association, are helping to reduce the complexity in storage management.

HP, Hitachi Data Systems, Cisco, McData, and Computer Associates (CA) are among the vendors behind this spec. They are also coming out with their own software suites to ease the storage management burden.

"There is an increasing level of customer interest in tools to manage the SAN infrastructure and the data that it contains," said Eric Pitcher, CA's BrightStor director.

"Expect both protocols to continue for several years before one or the other gives way. There is no reason why FC shops should migrate to iSCSI or vice versa ... " — Mike Karp, Enterprise Management Associates

CA sells a series of BrightStor Storage Management products that have the capability to provision storage across multiple operating system and hardware infrastructure platforms to eliminate console hopping between the various vendor-supplied tools. McData's SANavigator provides modules that monitor asset utilization in multivendor environments and historical reporting of transport usage. Other advanced SAN tools from Cisco, McData, and Brocade make it easier to link SANs together. With this comes greater security, ease of management, and greater heterogeneity

"We are clearly seeing greater support of heterogeneous storage environments," said Natalya Yezhkova, a storage systems analyst at IDC. "This is being driven by end users who are increasingly struggling with more complex management of data centers with storage systems from multiple vendors."

iSCSI's Year

iSCSI, the big trend of 2004, will continue to rule the storage roost in the coming year. Does this signal the beginning of the end for the mainstream FC vendors? Hardly. They have already shown their flexibility by embracing IP SAN technology and selling it better than specialist iSCSI vendors. And FC revenue continues to dwarf those for IP SANs.

"Expect both protocols to continue for several years before one or the other gives way," said Karp. "There is no reason why FC shops should migrate to iSCSI or vice versa. The important thing is that companies now have more choice, and that will continue to drive prices down."

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