Jumping Into the Virtual Pool

Microsoft, XIOtech unveil solution that boosts apps' storage capacity

Imagine a world where applications have the ability to command more storage capacity without interrupting the user's access to that application. Welcome to what is coming to be known as application-driven storage solutions. It's a place where applications, sensing the need for more capacity, command a disk subsystem to create, say, a new data-set of 50 MB configured at a RAID 1 0 level. The application gets its request fulfilled without any concern over what's happening on the physical level because the disk drives, the Logical Unit Numbers and the volumes are all transformed to a virtualized pool of capacity.

"How would you like to be able to keep running that application and have it tell the system that it needs more space, and the system simply allocates it online,hot?" asks Richard Blaschke, executive vice president at Eden Prairie, Minn.-based XIOtech, a subsidiary of Seagate Technology.

None of that is possible,yet. But according to executives at XIOtech, the first step to this world of automated intelligence is happening now in test labs.

"We are doing stuff that nobody else can do," Blaschke says. "Nobody can touch it because when the founders of this company started in 1995, they started from scratch with the idea of doing what we are doing now. The whole architecture was designed from scratch."

Last month, Microsoft and XIOtech jointly demonstrated at the Storage Networking World show in Palm Desert, Calif., a technology solution that enables the process of backups between server applications and storage hardware without interfering with the application.

In simple terms, the application can continue to run while continuous data backups and restores are done. The Goliath of the software world teamed up with the David of the storage subsystem industry to create this solution.

This backup-and-restore task is done by using a software and hardware-based platform. Microsoft .NET's Storage

Shadow/Copy Services (VSS) works through XIOtech's Hardware Provider,which is a software application that acts as an intermediary between XIOtech's disk array and VSS.

The task has three pieces: The requester within the backup software kicks off VSS, then the hardware provider executes the shadow copy and, finally, the writer within the application ensures the volumes are complete.

"Think of VSS as a conductor," says Dan McCormick, XIOtech's vice president of worldwide marketing. "It makes sure that everything stays in rhythm and in harmony. The hardware provider is a section in the orchestra. It takes its queues from VSS, making sure that the application gets what it needs, when it needs it."

All this is accomplished through virtualization. Essentially, the storage is being put into a virtual pool, so that the application does not care about the logistics of the physical layer in a system. This is crucial, Blaschke says. To do backups, all the multiple volumes, data sets and RAID configurations have to be synchronized so that data is copied in a single point in time.

"If I have to worry about the physical characteristics of the devices, and I have to start moving them around, then I'll have a big problem," Blaschke says. "But if I don't, then the problem goes away."

The new function will be available when Microsoft starts to ship its .NET Server OS, which will compete with Sun Microsystems' Java. Meanwhile, XIOtech has plans under way for more application-driven solutions for Oracle and health-care applications.

"Nobody can do what we're doing," Blaschke says. "Other people are trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You can't take a [Compaq StorageWorks and make it a virtual system. The architecture was not originally designed for it. You can't take [an EMC Symmetrix and make it virtual. They are trying to retrofit it. Nobody is going back to the beginning."