SAN-in-a-box

Small, self-contained SAN products allow remote offices and smaller companies to enjoy the benefits of sophisticated storage. These packages are relatively cheap, easy to deploy and require little attention. Scalability is a shortcoming, but buyers aren't worried.

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Can you imagine a storage area network (SAN) so simple to deploy and maintain that a branch office manager, secretary or--heaven forbid--even an executive VP could have it up and running within minutes? Of course, it would have to deliver basic SAN functionality, such as allowing multiple servers to share a storage pool with some level of reliability and manageability.

And while you're at it, imagine it being inexpensive, too. Say, $13, $14 or $16 per gigabyte for the whole thing--disk, SAN management software and network connections.

The makers of a variety of small, self-contained SAN products, sometimes called "SAN-in-a-box," believe they're delivering that kind of bulletproof, anybody-can-deploy-it SAN. The products differ: some sport Fibre Channel (FC) ports, a few are strictly iSCSI, some use SATA arrays, while others don't care what kind of disks inhabit the storage array. There's also another class of array products that are not exactly "in a box," but are extremely easy to deploy. What they have in common is a relatively low price tag, easy deployment (sometimes in less than a hour) and the promise that they'll run with almost no attention.

"They typically connect less than eight servers. Often, the HBA [host bus adapter] is inside the box," says Bob Passmore, research vice president, Gartner Inc., Stamford, CT.

Although Gartner doesn't track these self-contained SANs as a category, Passmore identified a number of vendors with products that could fit such a category. These include EqualLogic Inc., Nashua, NH; Intransa Inc., San Jose, CA; LeftHand Networks Inc., Boulder, CO; and Winchester Systems Inc., Burlington, MA, which actually refers to some of its FlashDisk array configurations as SAN-In-A-Box (see A sampling of self-contained SAN products). In general, these products are souped-up disk arrays with redundant components, IP and/or FC ports, and some combination of SCSI, FC or SATA disks.

In addition to the switching capability, HBAs and disk arrays, these products typically include some type of SAN virtualization software, simplified management capabilities and even some sophisticated storage features, such as snapshots or replication.

"These products are all about packaging and integration. The vendor needs to put all the necessary components together, make sure they work and then add an easy GUI," says Dianne McAdam, senior analyst and partner at Data Mobility Group LLC in Nashua, NH.

Several big-name storage vendors are jumping on the SAN-in-a-box bandwagon. "[Hewlett-Packard] has had entry-level SAN configurations for a long time and the small entry-level EMC Clariion array could be configured as a SAN-in-a-box if they wanted to add switching capability," says Gartner's Passmore. EMC Corp. and Dell Inc. have teamed to offer a SAN starter kit with a QLogic Corp. HBA built in. Still missing at this point is the integrated switching and easy-to-use configuration software.

Late in October 2004, HP joined QLogic to introduce the HP StorageWorks MSA 1000 Small Business SAN Starter Kit, which includes a QLogic switch, HBA and SAN software integrated into a StorageWorks Modular Smart Array (MSA) 1000 disk system. It will come with all-in-one pricing and packaging, along with a SAN setup wizard that lets non-experts install the entire SAN in minutes. The base price of $9,999 doesn't include any disk. Depending on the amount of disk capacity, pricing starts at approximately $12,000 and climbs as you add disk to its 12TB ceiling.

"The software is the key piece," says Frank Berry, QLogic's vice president, corporate marketing. "It will discover and configure automatically. You just have to hit 'next, next, next.' You don't even need to type in an IP address or the HBA worldwide name number," he adds.

Targeting SMBs
These products are designed to appeal to small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as to small units of large enterprises. "Small companies don't want to send someone to switch school," says McAdam, adding that since one vendor sells the SAN there's no finger-pointing between vendors if something goes wrong.

When Greater Media Inc. of Boston--a group of radio stations and publishing operations--found itself running out of room on its sole Windows Exchange 2000 server with direct-attached storage (DAS), it decided to upgrade its server and storage infrastructure. It explored a variety of options and ended up with Winchester Systems' FlashDisk OpenSAN FX-600, which is a self-contained SAN. "We looked at EMC and an entry-level HP SAN, but the price points were way too high and they were over-engineered for our needs," says Robby Mossman, director of information technology.

The company bought a two-server cluster and the FX-600 array with a little more than 1TB of storage capacity. It comes with redundant controllers and a redundant power source. Greater Media required redundant paths for its two servers for high availability, for which it needed multipathing software from Veritas Software Corp. Winchester Systems certified the Veritas product.

"The HP product didn't have the growth potential. Winchester had the growth of EMC, but for a lot less cost," says Mossman, citing Winchester's ability to scale to dozens of terabytes. The company paid less than $50,000 for the FX-600 with 1TB of storage, consisting of a mix of high-performance SCSI disk and low-cost SATA disk, dual controllers and eight ports. A three-year extended warranty and a cold spares kit were also included in the price. The Veritas multipath software license added another few hundred dollars to the price. The final cost of the entire infrastructure upgrade was about $100,000, including servers, Microsoft software, the SAN and a tape drive.

A sampling of self-contained SAN products
Cheap SAN
Price was also important to Alsac/St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. This fundraising arm of the hospital began upgrading its storage two years ago by adding self-contained IP SANs from LeftHand Networks, referred to as network storage modules. "We looked at Fibre Channel and EMC, [but] couldn't justify the cost for our use," says Chris Scholik, manager of network services. However, the organization uses EMC Symmetrix storage elsewhere.

A self-contained IP SAN from LeftHand Networks fit right into their budget. "We had plenty of bandwidth and a big Cisco 6500 switch, so we wouldn't have to build a separate storage subnet," says Scholik. With an IP SAN, Alsac could also take advantage of the SCSI initiator in the server rather than purchase HBAs. Its LeftHand SAN came with a network storage module with 4TB of raw storage, 2TB usable when configured for data protection, for $45,000.

Zenon Environmental Inc., a water filtration company in Oakville, Ontario, also found cost to be an important factor. The company had been using an EMC Clariion as shared FC storage, and maintenance costs were $25,000 a year. Instead, the firm opted for a self-contained SAN from EqualLogic. "It cost $40,000 Canadian, [the equivalent of] less than two years of EMC maintenance," reports Shawn Eveleigh, senior systems administrator.

Without a need for high performance or high I/O, Zenon didn't feel it was necessary to pay for FC storage. After looking at LeftHand and Intransa, it bought two EqualLogic units, each with 1.7TB of usable storage, and used the second unit for remote data replication. "The price delta between iSCSI and FC solutions, and the cost of FC drives compared to SATA is so high, it didn't make sense to us. As long as we can get the performance we need, who cares if it's an FC SAN?" says Eveleigh.

Ease of deployment
Beyond low cost, ease of deployment is also central to the self-contained SAN concept. "We went with LeftHand for the simplicity. It is simple to install, simple to operate and easy to scale," says John Denardo, innovation and technology director for Eagle County, CO, of the county's 12TB self-contained iSCSI SAN. With a total training budget of just $22,000, he couldn't afford to spend much on training. With LeftHand, training was part of the installation. "The whole setup came to just over one-third of what an FC system would cost without any training," he says.

For Greater Media, ease of deployment clinched the deal. "Winchester Systems came in and helped me set it up. Within an hour, it was functioning and I did the fine-tuning myself," says the firm's Mossman. "EMC wanted to design us a SAN, which would have taken time, labor and driven up the cost."

Mossman manages storage through a simple management console. "The hardest part was configuring the servers, not the SAN," he recalls. Greater Media is running Microsoft Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Enterprise Edition, and is clustering the servers in active-active mode. "We spent several months configuring the servers to my liking and testing the cluster," he adds.

Alsac/St. Jude also was attracted by the ease of deployment of its self-contained LeftHand Networks IP SAN as well as the low cost. "There is almost nothing to configure," says Scholik. "And because it's an IP SAN, not FC, we don't have to bother with zoning or masking or any of that."

Scalability
The biggest shortcoming of self-contained SANs is scalability. They are constrained by the amount of disk capacity that can fit into the box, and the number of ports that can be squeezed into the back of the box. "When you want to scale because you ran out of ports or you can't put in any more disk, you'll have to buy another box," says Data Mobility Group's McAdam. Of course, the boxes are pretty cheap, especially if you are adding SATA drives and Ethernet ports.

But buyers of these products aren't particularly worried about scalability. "If I want to expand the capacity, I can put in more Winchester boxes and manage them all through the one console," says Mossman. Scholik at Alsac/St. Jude has the same reaction: "If we need more storage, I just buy another LeftHand unit and add it to the storage pool. We don't have to go through any forklift upgrade," he says.

Self-contained SANs aren't for every organization. But for those that have been shut out of SAN storage because of its complexity and high cost, or for their lack of FC and storage skills, self-contained SANs offer a way to capture the benefits of SAN-based shared storage.

This was first published in January 2005

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