What a difference a year makes

What a difference a year makes

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Looking back over the last year, a lot has happened to change the way storage is done. In fact, 2003 will probably go down as a watershed year in several respects. The net effect was that storage networking definitively entered the era of commoditization. There's no turning back.

A reasonable definition of storage networking from 2000 would have said that storage area networks (SANs) were composed of monolithic arrays of Fibre Channel (FC) or SCSI drives connected via FC to hosts--in other words, expensive, proprietary and tricky to manage.

In 2003, every aspect of that definition was challenged. Icon of high-end storage EMC Corp. now offers its Clariion modular arrays with both SCSI and serial ATA (SATA) drives in the same enclosure. Arrays of all types now have IP ports for iSCSI. And lo and behold, a few products adhering to new management standards even hit the market, holding out hope that SAN manageability might actually surpass dismal in 2004.

IP storage will also change the way disaster recovery is done, although that trend started before this year. But now that it's obvious that iSCSI will work and probably get a lot of evaluations, asynchronous replication is going to take its place as a mainstay of data protection.

iSCSI can probably be thanked for another radical event in 2003: the fall of FC port prices below $1,000. Faced with the Ethernet challenge, host bus adapter (HBA) vendor JNI Corp. led the charge to get prices down to $800, and QLogic Corp. has even developed an Ethernet-style hub for FC that sports $500 per port costs, cheaper than Gigabit Ethernet. At this point, I don't see even 4Gb FC being able to sustain $1,000+ HBA prices.

Network-attached storage (NAS) also is undergoing some redefinition. This last year has seen several technologies that make the idea of NAS being limited by the capacity of a single box obsolete: NAS gateways to SANs, clustered NAS boxes and more flexible global file systems. When Network Appliance Inc., poster child for NAS, comes out with an FC-capable convergence box, you know something's up with NAS.

Commoditization isn't just about price. It's also about making products modular, scalable and interchangeable. SANs still have a long way to go on those fronts, but Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and McData Corp. all took steps this year to change the basic idea of a fabric by introducing new mechanisms for both expanding and organizing SANs through routing, virtualizing and aggregating ports on a logical basis. All of those were mostly just concepts this year, but concepts that will mutate and come to permeate SANs in coming years.

Lastly, you began to organize yourselves differently this year. The notion of storage groups has begun to take hold in larger companies. And where they exist, they have begun to take on more and more operational responsibility. Many issues remain, but storage managers are clearly taking their place as strategic decision makers and influencers in many businesses.

It was a pretty significant year, considering we were in a down economy. Just think of what you could do with a decent budget and management willing to look out of the foxhole.

This was first published in December 2003

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