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Virtualization helping Fibre Channel SANs win over small shops

Virtualization features in Xiotech's Fibre Channel arrays are turning heads in small shops. Ease of use may trump protocols in SAN purchasing decisions.

Storage customers often associate iSCSI SANs with ease of use and virtualization, and Fibre Channel SANs with complexity...

and high performance. But users in small and midsized shops who have recently chosen Xiotech's Fibre Channel systems say Xiotech's virtualization features made it the more appealing alternative—even, in one case, over a less expensive iSCSI SAN from EMC Corp.

"There was a large difference in cost" between Xiotech's FC array and EMC's CX-3 20 iSCSI SAN, according to Oliver Beers, network engineer for Wintek Corp., a regional ISP in Indiana. But Beers said his company, which currently has just over a terabyte of data, found Xiotech's user interface more appealing. In October, Wintek chose Xiotech's 3D 3100, and upgraded to the 3D 4000 in December.

Beers said Xiotech's disk virtualization and wizard-driven interface made it easy to manage the SAN without a huge amount of storage expertise. And because the 3D 4000 also comes with a Microsoft Management Console plug-in, server admins can manage the SAN through an interfact that's familiar to them.

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Ease of use, a familiar interface for network and server admins, and integration with server virtualization have been key selling points for iSCSI SANs. But Beers said that server virtualization integration was also a factor for his going with Fibre Channel. "VMotion can really hammer Ethernet pretty hard," he said. He realizes 10 Gb/sec Ethernet is coming, but "Fibre Channel seemed like it would let us expand into its performance better as we grow."

Xiotech is hoping that its support for virtualization and ease of management will help it make a rebound in the storage marketplace. After fading from the storage market in 2006 and most of 2007, the company has become more visible since launching the Magnitude 3D 4000 last October.

Longtime Xiotech customer Justin Watermann, technical coordinator of the Raytown C-2 School District in Kansas City, Mo., said his school district evaluated about a half dozen other vendors before upgrading to the Magnitude 3D 4000. The school district narrowed the competitors to a short list of Xiotech, 3PAR Inc. and Compellent Technologies Inc.

These three vendors' systems have differences – 3Par sells high-end systems while the others concentrate on the midrange and they have different mixes of Fibre Channel and iSCSI – but Watermann said there was one similarity. "What they all had in common for us was the ability to make a pool of disks behind a virtual interface."

Watermann said his school district chose Xiotech primarily on price, though he also said the school district was not offered a discount as an existing customer. The Microsoft Management Console was also a big selling point. "Now my server admin can just provision and expand his own storage," he said. "I've been able to cut about two hours per week out of my schedule just from not having to supervise that as much."

Another new feature on the 3D 4000 is a Web services API, which allows customers and partners to create customized features or integrate third-party products with the array themselves. Watermann said his local VAR used the API to integrate with CommVault's backup software, so the district can pause data mirroring between partitions of the Xiotech array and make a secondary backup to tape.

Xiotech's new interface has one drawback: Watermann said he misses the Web-based Java interface on previous Xiotech systems that let admins manage the storage system remotely. The new interface requires a dedicated host server and admins must create remote desktop interfaces into that server if they want to manage the SAN remotely. But the new interface is much faster and more responsive, and Watermann calls it an acceptable tradeoff.

Virtualization will drive FC growth

The most recent Emerging Technology Forecast from the Taneja Group suggests that ease of use and virtualization features make more of a difference in sales of storage systems than which protocol they use. The report predicts that while the overall Fibre Channel market will only add about $1 billion between now and 2011, next-generation FC systems will enjoy rapid growth, overtaking traditional FC systems in market share and revenue. The report defines next-generation FC systems as offering clustered controller configurations, disk virtualization, self-configuring and automated management, and "thin" technologies.

The report says next-generation systems will continue to grow in revenues from $170 million in 2007 to $2.007 billion in 2011, while revenue from traditional systems will remain flat in the midrange and drop in the high end. "We believe that the Fibre Channel storage system market is bifurcating – growth is slowing and ultimately reversing for traditional storage systems, while next generation storage systems are stealing share from their traditional storage system brethren," the report reads.

Despite his current preference for Fibre Channel, Beers added that he would like an easier path to add iSCSI. "Right now [Xiotech] has ways to set up iSCSI through hardware add-ons, but it would also be nice to have the option of a native iSCSI interface for some things," he said.

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