San all at sea, but is the tide turning?

12 Sep 2001 View Comments
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Storage area networks (Sans) are still a blip on the radar of most companies. Adoption has been slow, mainly because of cost and the overriding dominance of proprietary products.

The San industry has hit back by developing new standards, notably the open standard FC-SW-2. This ensures that vendors' products are interoperable, enabling end users to pick and mix products as easily as they do with Ethernet.

Further reading

But the main barriers to San adoption are two-fold: economic rough waters and poor education of customers and end users as to the benefits of Sans. While estimates from the Butler group point to an increasing percentage of IT budgets being spent on storage (it believes that by 2004 companies will spend two-thirds of their IT budgets on storage), it is questionable how much will go towards a San infrastructure.

Most organisations are hedging their bets with San. Bryn Sage, sales director at storage distribution company InTechnology, believes that customers are buying San-enabled products and beginning to build, initially, San 'islands'. These may be as small as two San switches and a Raid array.

"They are buying with the knowledge that IT and corporate capital expenditure freezes will be relaxed in the next six to 12 months. Products will be able to bolt into a global or corporate San," he said. Sage thinks companies are making tactical purchases with products that will fit into a San, buying the jigsaw "one piece at a time because they can't afford the puzzle just yet".

"Demand for storage is going up. Even with a restricted IT budget, once capacity is full, it's full. You need to buy more disk drives, end of story!" he said.

While the need for storage is apparent, experts admit that San take up hasn't been the sparkling success they had hoped. Peter Coleman, president of the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA), said: "Every year for the last three years, experts have said that the following year would be the year. We are only now getting to the point where people are adopting."

Statistics from consultants MacArthur Stroud showed that only 17.5 per cent of companies interviewed had deployed a San infrastructure. Of that figure, 86 per cent were in critical environments. Coleman suggests that this proves the technology has been accepted. He claims that companies wouldn't put data onto a San infrastructure if they had "any doubts about the technology".

But this is disputed by Andy Chudzik, managing director at storage integrator Posetiv. "I have seen figures which say that less than 10 per cent of Sans are being used for critical data," he explained, adding that most San deployments are used for departmental backup. "Large deployments are the exception, not the rule," he said.

While arguments rage over whether Sans are making their way into the enterprise, confusion reigns lower down the market. Hype has fuelled the confusion over what technology goes with this storage.

iSCSI and Infiniband have been talked about as possible replacements for Fibre Channel. Infiniband is still in its early stages of development and iSCSI has only a few products surrounding it. Coleman believes that iSCSI manufacturers are hyping up the technology. This creates confusion, because those that don't need to make an immediate decision hesitate and consider alternative choices.

"If they go for Fibre Channel, are they going to be locked out from other technologies?" asked Coleman, pointing out that people think that iSCSI will use existing Ethernet networks and Nics to connect all their storage together. "iSCSI is going to put information back onto the network, so it's going to put primary and secondary storage on your local area network (Lan), whereas the Lan is already burdened with backup," he said.

But Chudzik believes that iSCSI will have a very significant part to play in storage. He sees iSCSI and IP-based networks being more widely adopted in medium-sized organisations, while Fibre Channel will be best for high-end database markets.

Nigel Ghent, marketing director at EMC UK, also believes Fibre Channel is suited to the high-end of the market. "In enterprise Sans, Fibre Channel is established as the interconnect of choice. There are alternatives - indeed new ones are continually being developed - but today's choice is Fibre Channel," he said.

iSCSI can act as a complementary technology to Fibre Channel. It can complete and broaden the scope of where a San can be deployed, which is why the term 'storage networks' is becoming more applicable than 'storage area networks'.

Educating users on iSCSI and Fibre Channel will broaden the scope of Sans and speed up the deployment of Fibre Channel networks. The industry is trying to convince customers that companies don't have to replace their current storage investments, they can build on them. If companies start with Fibre Channel today, they will not need to 'fork-lift' upgrade to iSCSI or Infiniband: all will co-exist.

Clarifying the main issues will help companies make the decision to jump to San. But again, financial tightening has made things difficult. "Unfortunately the last two conferences that the FCIA was due to speak at were cancelled due to lack of registrations. This is an indication that budgets are tightening," said Coleman. It is a different story when the seminars are free, focused and regional. Delegates flock.

When network managers have all the facts to hand, they must see whether storage networks are right for them. Sage believes that one of the biggest challenges the storage industry faces is educating channel partners so that they offer better advice to customers. "Do they need a San? Or a big lump of direct Raid? Do they need a network attached storage device?" he asked.

A good starting point for any company about to invest in more storage would be to audit their systems, just to make sure that expansion is necessary (see below). Network managers should also keep in mind the business issues. Chudzik advises them to begin with the issues and work towards the solution.

What is the future for San growth? Coleman thinks it will be slower than predicted, but is confident that growth will remain in the industry. "In the last quarter of this year, we will start to see a further take up and deployment of San," he said.

With the price of San capacity dropping by 40 per cent, companies are buying San-enabled products as finances allow them. It has been said that investing in a San would save money because of the planning, architectural work and housekeeping needed to deploy it. While Gartner predicts that the total San market will be worth £19bn in 2002 and £40bn worldwide by 2005, we must wait until next year to find out if we are seeing yet another false dawn for the San.

Case Study ? Kingston University

Kingston University chose a San to support its graphic design, animation and video editing facilities after seeing a similar installation at Bournemouth University.

A Fibre Channel-based San has given the University's students quick access to all centrally held video files. NT workstations on the Fibre Channel network allow multiple users to read the same data simultaneously, but control write access to one user at a time. Students can share the same data in real time, increasing productivity and reducing delays.

They use a Salient Fibre Channel storage subsystem and a Gadzoox Bitstrip hub. All connections are copper-based with the option to use fibre as they add other workstations to the San. This ensures that scalability is built into the original configuration, for maximum flexibility in future growth.

Malcolm Finnie, the department's technical officer, said: "We viewed the system in action in a similar environment and were convinced by its storage capacity, scalability and increased bandwidth. With fibre-based storage solutions, at least 30 students or professionals can share the facilities at any time and store up to two hours of digitised video footage each."

Planning for storage

Companies looking to deploy an infrastructure would be wise to plan around future proofing. Organisations benefit from auditing what storage they have before buying a costly infrastructure. Separating the hot data from the junk could mean that between 30 and 50 per cent of the corporate capacity will be freed because data is duplicated, redundant or personal.

Network managers can then start from a known, quantifiable position. A bit of housekeeping before thinking about deploying a storage device is worthwhile. Most quality resellers will be able to advise customers on how to take those steps. Sans are a good first step toward server consolidation.

Planning helps move things forward. Bryn Sage, sales director at InTechnology, believes that the disciplines that exist in normal network management haven't come to traditional storage. A network structure can be managed at a single point, a common infrastructure throughout the corporation.

"If you look at storage, you may have 200Gb on one server and 90Gb on another, and it is all dispersed through the organisation," he said. A San brings that same discipline and manageability to the storage infrastructure as is there for the network infrastructure. "Network managers wouldn't make a decision on their network without an analysis of the background."

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