The Great Storage Debate

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Start-up Pirus Networks recently went to market with its very first product,a switch that was designed to be more than just a traffic cop for data. Think of it as a special-forces switch, meant to contain most of the intelligence needed to manage the ever-growing army of data that companies are creating daily.

Maranti Networks, another start-up, also plans to build a next-generation switch that concentrates most intelligent-software functions, such as virtualization, data replication, file serving, remote mirroring and security, onto one device.

These two companies are among the newest with designs to become part of the movers and shakers in the storage industry,along with companies including DataCore Software and FalconStor Software,that advocate a more centralized

intelligence solution to manage storage data.

More important, those in charge believe the network should be the gatekeeper for all of these high-level tasks.

But on the other end of the spectrum are storage giants such as EMC and Compaq Computer, as well as newcomer TrueSAN Networks. They are wary of these so-called "God-boxes" that centralize most of the management intelligence.

"If you are going to have software intelligence, it has to be as close as possible to the thing it is managing," says Don Swatik, vice president of EMC's alliances and information sciences. "The reason is simple: Every additional step the data goes through compromises the integrity of the data."

Supporters of this argument say making flowing data go through extra steps in the network,whether in switches, hubs, disk arrays or servers,opens too many opportunities for data corruption. For that reason, it's unlikely vendors will do away with intelligence functions that need to reside in the servers and subsystems.

For example, a task called dynamic multipathing for failover typically resides in the server. That is where it should stay, according to some industry experts. Other jobs, such as mirroring and stripping data between RAID disks, should naturally stay in the subsystem.

"You will never do away with intelligence at the host and the subsystem," says Thomas Isakovich, CEO of TrueSAN Networks, based in San Jose, Calif. "Yes, intelligence is converging into the network. [But you don't want to take all the intelligence and stuff it into a proprietary box. The idea of these God-boxes at the center of the network,that scares people."

Some analysts are among the wary. On one hand, they believe the network is the one neutral place where management intelligence should reside. But, as in life, intelligence in technology needs to be distributed. Some experts say the assumption that one device holding all the intelligence to manage an environment containing multiple servers, subsystems, switches and data paths is not realistic, let alone democratic.

"Because it is a neutral spot, my position is the intelligence should predominately reside in the network, but not 100 percent," says Arun Taneja, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group, based in Milford, Mass. "The idea of having a big, huge master switch in the middle and [making everything surrounding it dumb,I don't think life is that black and white. Luckily, folks like EMC won't let that happen."

Nick Allen, an analyst at Gartner, says a more realistic scenario closely resembles the way a federal government works: Each state operates on its own, and a federal body serves as the central delegating authority. Ideally, IT managers want a self-managing system where all the devices are working autonomously for the good of the whole.

"They need to be independent to a degree, but you can't do it all in one place," Allen says. "If one node has trouble, it needs to tell the central coordinator, 'Hey, I have a problem that I can't solve on my own. Help.'"

Those in favor of a more centralized intelligence-management system point out that an overly decentralized system results in chaos for IT managers. For instance, security software can reside in both the server as well as the disk subsystem. That means an IT manager must license software for each array and server. The result: Each device becomes a point that needs to be managed. That is the problem facing most storage IT administrators today.

"You end up with a complex environment, one that has five or six separate products that duplicate many things," says Mark Lovington, Pirus' vice president of marketing. "[But in some ways, I would agree with EMC. There are different applications and customer requirements. This is not a winner-takes-all battle."

Analysts contend there is a distinction between management packages that centralize the intelligence and those that centralize the management of the intelligence. And, ultimately, IT managers, resellers and integrators have to make a clear distinction between different packages. For instance, Compaq engineers are developing a virtualization product that is intended to reside in an appliance-model,one that sits on the edge of the network, out of the data path,that can reach out to each device on the network.

"We want to decouple the SAN management away from the server and away from the subsystem," says Mark Lewis, Compaq's vice president and general manager of the enterprise storage unit. "We don't want it in the network, necessarily. We don't want it in the data path. And we don't want it in the switch because we don't want switches to become proprietary."

Maranti, a start-up with approximately 60 employees and $33 million in venture capital and debt financing, is building a switch scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year.

Executives highlight one key feature: application Quality of Service, a networking feature for performance and availability. In addition to that, the device performs data replication, virtualization, file serving, remote mirroring and security.

Kuldeep Sandhu, Maranti co-founder, president and CEO, says his company's software solution will work together with broad framework software like Tivoli and HP OpenView. In fact, the company is talking to IBM and Hewlett-Packard to negotiate an API cross-license deal so its switch can work together with these broader framework products.

"Our view is to work with a high-level framework software for the server and the subsystem and to have users navigate from that," Sandhu says, "but we would do this end-to-end application Quality of Service."

Sandhu says they also are in discussions with subsystem vendors to negotiate API cross-license deals. But, as of press time, Maranti executives refused to divulge particular names.

"I just cannot talk about specific partners at this time," Sandhu says. "Clearly, the subsystem guys are interested. We are not competing with them. Our goal is to expose our APIs to them."

Pirus, founded in December 1999 and now employing roughly 120 people, is one of the first to go to market with these next-generation, intelligent switches.

The device encapsulates multiple tasks, including CIFS and NFS file-sharing as well as virtualization, security, remote mirroring and data replication. One switch can configure up to 12 file servers and handle between six to 12 TB. ServFlex software does CIFS and NFS file-sharing, while the PirusView is the management console. In addition, the Secure Virtual Storage software offers both security features and the ability to partition the network.

"The concept is similar to what a VLAN does in the network," says Ken Kutzer, Pirus' director of marketing.

No doubt, players such as Pirus, Maranti, TrueSAN and InterSAN are bringing a lot of new ideas in a space that has been largely dominated by Compaq, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems and IBM. And with these new ideas comes much debate. But experts say the bottom line is that vendors and integrators need to address customers' problems individually.

"The question you have to ask is, 'What is the customer's pain point?' Companies can come up with academic answers, [but you have to look at what the customer complaints are today," says Chris Melville, CEO and co-founder of InterSAN. "Management has to be where it effectively addresses the business need." n

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