SAN grows up, and down

SAN grows up, and down

From its early days as a player in large organizations, SAN has found new fans both in its appeal to smaller sized businesses and the use of iSCSI components. Siobhan McBride reports

In 1995, a 1TB SAN storage array was a 1360kg behemoth with six 220-volt, 30-amp circuits that needed three 72-inch racks to house it. Now 1TB of storage qualifies as an entry-level SAN, and a small one, at that.

With the market moving forward so rapidly now, both vendors are users are realizing the potential in SANs and the choices available to them. One such organization was IT services supplier to Australian credit unions TransAction Solutions, which invested $2.1 million in new technology to accommodate its growing data storage requirements.

The company needed to change the way it stored and managed clients' data within its own IT infrastructure, Guy Light, general manager at TransAction Solutions, said.

"We had examined the business case for a storage area network, but felt a physical SAN alone only went part of the way. For us, more important than managing the increasing volume of data was its accessibility," Light said.

Light believed that while a SAN would allow the business to consolidate its storage systems, it didn't sufficiently address the accessibility issue. "For many of our client companies, tools like e-mail are mission-critical; they can't afford not to have access to their business data 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Virtualization, the next major step in networked storage, enables this."

Virtualization allows pooling of storage across disparate storage systems into a single, consolidated view and is a component of IBM's strategy to help organizations deploy on-demand infrastructures.

In December 2003, TransAction Solutions installed two Volume Controllers and a 4.3Tbyte capacity Enterprise Storage Server, from IBM's TotalStorage range, and two SAN switches. The TotalStorage SAN Volume Controller is a combined solution of customized, dual IBM eServer xSeries servers running embedded Linux operating system and IBM's virtualization software. The solution went live in April 2004.

Light says it has enabled the company's IT infrastructure to better respond to changes in its business, such as the acquisition of new clients or increased demand from existing ones.

"The virtualization technology allows us to deploy and redeploy storage capacity in minutes where previously it would have taken us anything up to weeks to specify the solution, seek bids, and order and implement the new hardware."

Dynamic and fertile

Gartner research director Phil Sargeant claims that right now the SANs arena is dynamic, and, because most large organizations - whether in the public or private sector - have moved to SANs, the fertile ground these days is in the small and medium enterprise space.

"All the vendors have now added new, entry-level and mid-range products to their portfolios because they're chasing small and medium enterprises," Sargeant said.

"The SMEs until probably the last six to nine months saw the SANs arena as too expensive, but now these products have been brought to their level. "Also, the whole cost of the SANs infrastructure has come down in cost quite dramatically over the last year, so it's now a lot more affordable." Sargeant believes other developments have taken place in this field over the last few years, apart from lowering of prices.

"For many years when you spoke about SANs it was all fibre channel, but now using iSCSI components it's become a lot cheaper, as well as much more interoperable," Sargeant said.

"Also, the maturity of the storage equipment associated with SANs has developed. Previously it was seen as quite complex, but the software has matured and is easier to deploy."

A white paper by Steve Rodgers, director of technical marketing at Snap Appliance claims organizations with server proliferation and data growth problems in departmental and workgroup data centres would be the first to benefit from the introduction of IP storage and iSCSI.

"As the technology matures and performance increases, iSCSI-based storage solutions will gradually expand to displace DAS in high-end data centres and mission-critical environments, making iSCSI-based IP SANs ubiquitous," Rodgers said.

However, Brocade Australia and New Zealand partner manager Graham Schultz has a different take on the iSCSI area, claiming that up until recently, uptake in this area has been fairly low, and that this type of SAN is not for everyone.

"The consolidation trend in the IT industry is diluting the value proposition of the iSCSI," Schultz said.

"Therefore iSCSI may not be the most cost-effective solution when you consider your consolidation strategy. So if a customer is not going to go through consolidation, then they would remain good iSCSI candidates."

Veritas Software strategic technical architect Simon Elisha is keen to put forward the benefits of all SANS, believing that the arena keeps on growing in terms of scale, speed and management challenge.

"As disk densities grow, and the demands for storage continue through compliance and general business activity, the amount of storage under management is escalating. In Australia, SANs of hundreds of terabytes are not rare," Elisha said.

"The one factor that remains the same is the lack of staff to manage the storage itself. From provisioning, to maintenance to backup to data classification and tiering - these issues remain with the same headcount, but a much larger magnitude of data."

Elisha claims that customers are starting to take a long, hard look at cohesive management tools, data classification, archival and tiered storage strategies that tie all of this together.

"Customers are also going back and re-visiting the utilization of their existing SANs and discovering terabytes of space that is unused, allocated to 'garbage' files or could simply be moved to cheaper disk."

"SANs keep on getting bigger, but now they have to deliver on the promise of five years ago and the five years to come."

IBM Australia senior storage consultant Gary Barker agrees, believing that SANs have changed from something to think about and consider, to a given.

"It's now expected that if you're a reasonable size, SANs is the way to go," Barker said.

"It started off as something that only the big guys could consider, but now iSCSI is gaining a good foot hold and smaller organizations are [getting] the cost breaks."

Barker claims that the SAN is the obvious choice, and now people have to make the choice of what to put on top of the SAN to manage.

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