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SD '04: Attendees give thumbs up to network virtualization

Users at Storage Decisions voted overwhelmingly in favor of network-based virtualization, but many still have doubts over product reliability and costs.

CHICAGO -- Plenty of storage users appear to be undaunted by the flip-flopping, to borrow a popular phrase these days, going on in the industry over where storage virtualization should reside -- in fact, many have already made up their minds.

An astonishing 78% of users attending a session on intelligence in the fabric at Storage Decisions, Tuesday said they were considering adopting storage services like virtualization and replication in the network, rather than on storage arrays or hosts.

Moreover, 56% of the 90 or so attendees in this session said they have already deployed virtualization capabilities in their networks and want to add more services into the fabric.

The results are interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the argument over whether storage virtualization should be preformed in the network, the hosts or within the storage array, has been raging for years and continues to this day, but hasn't apparently stopped some users from forging ahead. And second, there appear to be few complaints so far among those that have taken the plunge.

"Intelligence in the fabric has made us more agile and flexible to deploy data warehouses faster, move data out to lower classes of storage, perform long- distance mirroring between data centers, standardize on our migration tools and get our data recovery time down from 72 hours to one hour," said Christine Collins, senior manager, enterprise computing architecture at Ahold Information Services, a subsidiary of Netherlands-based food provider, Ahold.

The U.S. wing of the company is located in Greenville, S. C. and is an IBM shop, using its SVC (SAN Volume Controller) blade in Cisco Systems Inc.'s MDS directors for virtualization, replication, mirroring and volume management in the network.

But not everyone is up to this speed just yet. "The concept of network virtualization is sound, but the products aren't there yet," according to Robert Schlein, a storage systems administrator at General Electric Co. The firm looked at software products from Veritas Software Corp. and EMC Corp. but wasn't convinced. "They can virtualize some things but not all things. We want a product that virtualizes all our storage," Schlein said.

Meanwhile, Mike White, senior IT technical analyst for Unix technical services at Cargill Inc., an international provider of food and agricultural products, believes network-based virtualization is the way to go for scalability, but he isn't convinced the products are ready or will necessarily save on costs. "They need to prove the concept," he said.

Global communications provider Sprint Corp. is focusing its efforts this year and into 2005 on disaster recovery but won't be implementing anything new in its switch infrastructure -- "otherwise we would look at virtualization," said Lynn M. Neal, senior systems integrator at Sprint. "It's too risky for us to be bleeding edge, we are taking tiny steps without making an absolute decision on virtualization until it's tried and true," she said.

Then there are those like Gary Pilafas, senior systems architect at United Airlines, who totally disagree with the network approach. "The fabric is already confusing enough -- to add more complexity to it doesn't make sense," he said. "How do you keep the data and management frames off each other to keep the path open just for data? It adds a lot of overhead to a network that is already difficult to measure and manage."

Despite these uncertainties, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) research suggests that intelligence in the fabric will be adopted on a large scale as soon as the next 12-18 months. "For companies doing ILM and utility computing it will be key," reckons Nancy Hurley, senior analyst with ESG.

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