Pivotal time for storage (Editorial)

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Pivotal time for storage


Marketing types call it an inflection point. Sports-minded pundits say it's a game changer. Scholarly types--at the risk of being pummeled with the Oxford English Dictionary--classify it as a paradigm shift. The less expressive among us, including me, are more likely to say, "Wow, there's really something going on here."

And there's a helluva lot going on in the storage world these days. Part of it can be attributed to the natural evolution of the tech market. Big storage vendors lumber along for years. Little startups pop into the picture with their new ideas, catching the notice of these giants. Before you can say "Why didn't I think of that?" they gobble up the startups. It's the Darwinian world of technology, and it's not unlike most other businesses.

It sounds harsh, but some of the big ideas generated by small startups would probably never see the light of day without a boost from their big brothers, even if it means being bullied. Take data deduplication. It's an idea largely developed and promoted by smaller companies that, with some notable exceptions like Data Domain, couldn't push their products into the mainstream. Suddenly, EMC buys Avamar and de-dupe is very much for real and shops are now interested.

You can also probably give EMC credit for making server virtualization cool. Everyone knows virtual servers pose some new challenges for storage environments, but they can also provide a platform for very innovative thinking. In the last month, I've heard about storage apps that have been nipped, tucked and tweaked so they can run inside a virtual machine (VM). LeftHand Networks' SAN/iQ storage OS can now run in a VM, which effectively puts the storage controller side by side with app servers in the same physical machine.

Another VM-bound application comes from Expand Networks. Expand is known for its WAN optimization appliances, which it has been selling for approximately 10 years. Its newest product, Virtual WAN Optimization, puts its Accelerator Operating System into a VMware virtual server. Like LeftHand's storage controller, it runs right beside the application servers it services.

Just like that, there's no more appliance or separate box to handle storage management. You can cut data center clutter a bit, pare down electric bills and gain all the resiliency/flexibility virtualization provides for the server side of the shop.

Another area where things are happening is within the storage fabric. This connective tissue is considered not much more than a bunch of cards, cables and connectors that are a hassle to deal with. Xsigo Systems was one of the first companies to offer a tantalizing alternative to the traditional storage fabric with its I/O Director, which essentially virtualizes the network. Need an HBA here or a NIC there? No need to pop a server top and slot in a new card--just create a virtual HBA or NIC in Xsigo's box.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is making news these days with Brocade, Cisco, Emulex, Intel and others rolling out FCoE products and roadmaps. FCoE promises no less than a universal network infrastructure for data centers: one card that handles FC and Ethernet traffic over a single cabling system. Even with 8Gb FC starting to show up, FCoE might be even bigger news because it supports a new and improved Ethernet running at 10Gb.

I've just scratched the surface of recent storage developments and some of the cooler-than-cool apps on the horizon. These can all potentially change the game and shift some of those aforementioned paradigms. But it will take more than just new products; we'll have to change the way we deploy and manage storage. Are you ready?

This was first published in May 2008
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