Users remain wary of intelligent switches

Users at SNW said they're hesitant to adopt switch-based virtualization, and experts say it may be years before the predicted move of storage services to the fabric comes about.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Despite continued optimism on the part of industry analysts that "the fabric is the future," users at Storage Networking World (SNW) in Orlando, said that they remain hesitant to deploy storage services -- such as virtualization -- in the network fabric.

Todd Wyman, Unix systems analyst for Donaldson Company Inc. in Minneapolis, said he is currently using a virtualization product from StoreAge Networking Technologies running on a separate appliance outside his network path. That's as far as he's willing to take it, he said.

Wyman said he feared putting an intelligent switch into his network path because of an experience he said he had while using an in-band virtualization appliance from Datacore Software Corp.

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"It was supposed to have redundancy, but once one box became unstable, they both failed," Wyman recalled. "Three times, all I/O in our data center stopped for eight hours. It brought down our entire North American operation."

Wyman said he felt that an intelligent switch running his storage services inside his network path would pose the same problems.

Also, he said, "it's a very difficult business decision to make to rip out and replace your entire fabric when you can just use an appliance."

Other users were equally skeptical about virtualization, no matter where it was run.

One user who wished to remain anonymous said, "How does an in-band switch make sure both fabrics are mapping out to the right virtual LUNs on the back end?" Further, "what about security -- how does it do LUN masking with a dual fabric?"

Brocade Communication Systems Inc.'s announcement at SNW this week is further testament of the slowing interest in moving storage services into the fabric. The company unveiled a new product called Data Migration Manager that moves data between arrays and runs on an out-of-band appliance, not on its switches.

"It's true users are slow to adopt the technology," said Richard Villars, vice president of storage systems for IDC. Villars said his firm's surveys showed that only 8% of respondents had used virtualization at all, and typically, their implementation was "a very tactical box," like for migration.

"It's a radically new way of thinking about it, introducing a logical abstraction layer. There's always going to be fear -- any time you're using new abstraction, there could be a performance hit."

Still, Villars said he predicts intelligent switches and virtualization are where the market's headed, eventually. "Users need to think about where their long-term storage capacity is going to be. You're not going to use it on your credit card transaction applications. But with e-mail, for example, which is going up 60% a year, shared storage could be very valuable."

Robert Gray, research vice president for IDC, said he remained similarly sanguine about the future of intelligent switches in the long run.

"It's going to mature incrementally, through a series of upgrades," he said, predicting that a full move of intelligence to the fabric was still "several generations out. But IT budgets are flat or shrinking. Users have to find new ways of automating storage services. That's where the push is."

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