Virtualizing SANs

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There are a lot of opportunities for solution providers in storage virtualization, said David Stone, vice president of business development at Solutions-II, an Englewood, Colo.-based solution provider that works with IBM's SAN Volume Controller virtualization technology.

"Customers are consuming a lot of storage and have complex environments," Stone said. "Storage virtualization is something that is in the early stage of adoption, but it will be mainstream in the near future."

Enterprises looking to consolidate the cost and complexity of their server environments have taken the concept of server virtualization to heart, and they are now looking to apply the same concept to their storage environments. Storage virtualization is aimed at consolidating the capacity of storage arrays from multiple vendors into a single pool of storage that can be allocated and de-allocated as needed.

Virtualization helps cut the complexity of storage via a simplified management interface that handles all the tasks that might otherwise require multiple tools from the various vendors. These include helping ease the migration of a customer's data when purchasing or leasing new equipment, especially if that migration is to a new vendor's equipment.

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While not as widespread as server virtualization, storage virtualization has faster growth potential. In a survey conducted late last year by Forrester Research, about 21 percent of North American enterprises have already adopted storage virtualization, while 17 percent plan to adopt it this year and 18 percent next year.

Virtualization in the enterprise comes in two major flavors: appliance-like hardware implementations and software-based implementations.

On the hardware side are products like the TagmaStore Universal Storage Platform (USP) and Network Storage Controller from Hitachi Data Systems; the SAN Volume Controller, or SVC, from IBM; technologies for virtualizing storage within an array and within a grid system from Hewlett-Packard; and EMC's Invista, which was released in December 2005 but has yet to become available to the channel.

HP, Palo Alto, Calif., also carries an OEM version of HDS' USP in its enterprise-class XP line, as well as a virtualization front-end appliance made specifically for the company by HDS.

On the software side are technologies from smaller storage vendors, including the IPStor software from Melville, N.Y.-based FalconStor and the SANmelody software from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based DataCore Software.

The primary difference between hardware and software solutions, Stone said, is not so much performance as in the price and the vendor name. The software solutions come mainly from smaller companies, and are often embedded in or relabeled as other vendors' solutions, Stone said.

"We do IBM's SAN Volume Controller because, No. 1, it's IBM, and No. 2, it is a fully integrated product. It's an appliance. Most customers want to reduce complexity. HDS is a good product. HP's EVA for the midrange is a good product. We'll see the major players take this space, with the others getting incorporated in other companies' products."

Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi, a Cleveland-based solution provider, is on the other hand a big fan of software-based appliance solutions such as FalconStor's IPStor because it comes from a company with no hardware sales agenda.

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"Most players have their proprietary storage," Knieriemen said. "With FalconStor, you can connect a Nexsan SATABeast or any other vendor's array behind it."

FalconStor sells its appliance with or without internal disk, depending on customer requirements, Knieriemen said. "Often, the customer will say they will repurpose an old EMC Clariion array with FalconStor virtualization," he said. "It's no problem, except once in a while EMC says, 'Oh, if you attach it to FalconStor, we can't support it.' "

On the hardware side, both HDS, Santa Clara, Calif., and IBM, Armonk, N.Y., have been in the enterprise virtualization space for some time, primarily through the channel.

HDS' USP, based on the company's disk array technology, allows up to 32 petabytes of storage from nearly any vendor to be connected behind it, including up to 322 Tbytes of internal capacity. It comes with 192 Fibre Channel ports or 96 ESCON or FICON ports offering a total of about 81-GBps bandwidth. The Network Storage Controller can virtualize up to 16 petabytes of storage, including up to 72 Tbytes of internal storage.

The company has already shipped about 4,500 USPs and Network Storage Controllers, said Claus Mikkelsen, HDS' chief scientist. More than half of them have the software license needed to virtualize multivendor storage, he said. It is the only platform available that provides virtualized storage to mainframes, he said.

Joe Kadlec, vice president and senior partner at Consiliant Technologies, an Irvine, Calif.-based HDS channel partner, said the USP is clean and simple to install with existing storage from other vendors.

"We preserve the customer's investment in their current infrastructure," Kadlec said. "Often, that storage has been on the books for two to three years and customers don't want to throw it away."

The USP is also OEMed to HP under the XP brand, and is resold through Sun Microsystems' channel as well.

While HDS' virtualization technology can be used to build the largest storage pools, it still requires customers to buy its disk array technology, said Chris Saul, marketing manager for IBM's SVC.

The SVC, on the other hand, has no internal storage, Saul said. It can connect to up to 2 petabytes of multivendor storage into a single cluster consisting of two nodes. Up to four pairs can be connected together, he said.

"Our view is, [the USP is] not independent of the storage in the way the SVC is," he said. "With SVC, you have flexibility to change the storage vendor. With Hitachi, the storage and the virtualization is in the same box. We've seen customers install the SVC to make it easier to change from one storage vendor to another. With the SVC, we get the opportunity to come back later with IBM storage."

Despite the ability to virtualize multivendor storage behind a single management system, vendor lock-in is an issue regardless of who provides the virtualization technology, said Patrick Eitenbichler, director of marketing at HP's StorageWorks Division.

"Some vendors tell customers they can manage multivendor storage under one window and can add lowest-cost storage in the future," Eitenbichler said. "But once a customer buys a certain virtualization engine, they tend to buy other storage from that vendor. So you get vendor lock-in anyway."

IBM has sold about 2,200 SVCs so far, with between 60 percent and 70 percent of the sales going through solution providers, Saul said. In addition to deploying the SVC, solution providers also can provide such services as local or remote replication and migration from old to new storage environments, he said.

The most important service a solution provider can offer is to help customers sort through the buzz about virtualization, Eitenbichler said. "There's buzz in the industry," he said. "It's an opportunity for VARs to go to customers and say, 'There's buzz about virtualization and here's what it's really about.' "