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IBM mulls future of switch-based virtualization

IBM announced its one thousandth customer using SAN Volume Controller but is unclear about future development of the switch-based version of the product.

The future of IBM's switch-based SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualization software appears to be in dispute as the company strides ahead with the appliance version of the product -- announcing its one thousandth customer.

Since launching SVC almost two years ago, IBM claims it has chalked up 1,000 customers and boldly asserts that it will hit 10,000 another two years from now. What's interesting about its current installations is that the vast majority are running the software on an appliance. IBM also sells SVC as a blade for Cisco Systems Inc.'s MDS line of Fibre Channel switches, but tacitly admits that users have been reluctant to go for this model, because of the price.

"The space on the switch is more valuable to use as a switch than for virtualization … Customers value that real estate in their switches," said Roger Wofford, SVC marketing manager at IBM. He added that as the switch matures, there might be another opportunity for this approach. Neither Wofford, nor Andrew Monshaw, recently instated general manager of the storage systems group at IBM, could say one way or another whether the company would continue developing SVC for the Cisco switch.

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Brian Perlstein, technical architect at Oakwood Healthcare System in Dearborn, Mich., recently installed SVC in front of 16 terabytes of different IBM storage systems to move data around between them. A Cisco SAN switch customer, Perlstein chose the appliance version of SVC because it required less changes to his overall management and infrastructure, he said.

Ironically, the most recent SAN Volume Controller customer is Cisco and even it bought the appliance version of the software. During a briefing Wednesday at its Cambridge, Mass., offices, IBM announced that Cisco's IT group has bought two instances of SVC.

"This deal was separate to the business relationship we have with Cisco," said Jens Tiedemann, general manager of the open software storage group at IBM. "It's not an exchange of technology or anything like that." He added that Cisco is a major EMC Corp. shop and is looking to use the product to virtualize its EMC environment.

In fact, IBM claims many SVC users are virtualizing EMC storage, but not all of them have "the clout" to talk about it publicly as Cisco has done, Tiedemann said.

Responding to questions over e-mail, Cisco issued this statement regarding SVC: "Cisco IT has a multi-vendor storage environment and is evaluating several virtualization solutions to meet different operational needs. The IBM SVC solution is one of these, and Cisco has plans to use it for virtualization functions, such as data migration and data protection."

"It's telling," said Arun Taneja, founder and analyst with the Taneja Group. "They've obviously looked at EMC's Storage Router as they made it work with the Cisco switch … But Cisco's IT shop is huge and there's nothing to say that it won't have Storage Router in there, too, eventually."

"It is what it is -- Cisco essentially agreed to purchase an evaluation unit. It's a test agreement between partners," said EMC spokesman, Dave Farmer.

To add to the convoluted relationships between these companies, Cisco recently announced that it would resell EMC's NAS products. According to analysts, Cisco needs to partner with all the storage players to get its product to market in whatever way it can. "They need to be the Switzerland of the storage industry," said Rick Villars, senior analyst with International Data Corp.

For users trying to fathom the dynamics of this space, Taneja offers some useful advice: Don't rush into buying anything -- there's still a long way to go in the maturity of this technology.

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