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File virtualization shops going strong, but market uncertain

Users say the F5/Acopia ARX switch has become an important part of their environment, but the overall file virtualization market has cooled over the last few years.

Although early users of file virtualization technology say that file virtualization is still a vital part of their network attached storage (NAS) management strategy, storage industry analysts are unsure of what the long-term market for the technology will be. According to the analysts, the market for file virtualization hasn't lived up to its original promise, despite high-profile acquisitions of file virtualization technology by EMC, Cisco, Brocade and F5 Networks Inc. in recent years.

Bill Montgomery, manager of information systems for LuLu Press, has been using F5 Networks' ARX switch in front of various EMC Celerra NAS systems since early 2007. (He bought the switch from Acopia before F5 Networks acquired the company.) LuLu Press uses ARX primarily to load-balance some 150 file systems encompassing 60 TB of data on the Celerra systems.

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"We've implemented some of the tiering capabilities between Fibre Channel and SATA disks based on access time," Montgomery said. The product proved valuable during migrations to new Celerra filers, "all done during production hours," he added.

Sean Maisey, manager of IT operations and engineering for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and an Acopia customer since 2006, said that the ARX switch enabled a recent upgrade to FAS3020C filers from NetApp. "We were sending data from the production FAS250 filers to a [NetApp] R200 array, where we were also storing multimedia files," he said.

When the R200 array began to fill up, the Foundation wanted to use it only to store multimedia, and send Tier 2 and backup data to the FAS3020 system at a separate location. "We didn't have the disk capacity to offload data to," Maisey said. "We might have had to rent another 800-pound R200 server for a really messy and painful long weekend, and manually redo mappings and file shares to the hosts."

Focus shifts to cloud computing, 8-gig Fibre Channel

Despite successful deployments such as these, the market seems to have shifted its attention away from this type of file virtualization in favor of newer technologies such as cloud computing, 8 Gbps Fibre Channel and data center backbones.

Brocade acquired NuView in 2006 as one of the keys in its file area network (FAN) strategy. While Brocade still offers NuView's StorageX Windows file virtualization products, FAN seems to have faded from the forefront of its messaging. Cisco discontinued the NeoPath product soon after acquiring it. EMC refocused its Rainfinity product from file virtualization to data migration.

There have been outages with the ARX switch, but downtime was minimal because LuLu Press deploys a dual-node high-availability configuration, Montgomery admitted. "There was a 5- to 10-minute delay during failover," he said. He added that most other users he's spoken with still look to file virtualization for one-off, services-oriented migration projects rather than day-to-day NAS management.

ARX "has been solid as a rock" for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, but prospective customers who have called Maisley for a reference on Acopia seemed overwhelmed grasping the concept of the technology. He said, "I think some of them have had trouble understanding what it really does."

Despite vendor hype over the last couple of years, "there's no real market yet other than the propped up market by vendors trying to jumpstart or create a market for their solution," said StorageIO Group analyst Greg Schulz. "For large-scale deployments, there is concern about the stability, performance and reliability [of products]."

For the market to take off, Schulz added, "customers need to see the solutions as a business enabler as opposed to yet another layer of cost and complexity or another vendor to shift their vendor lock-in towards."

Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Terri McClure is more optimistic about the prospects of file virtualization. She says that "things have been quiet" in the file virtualization arena because in her mind there are only two real players in file virtualization -- F5/Acopia and EMC Rainfinity. "A lot of users are attacking file server sprawl with consolidation efforts [rather than adding a virtualization layer," she said. "But migration and data mobility issues remain, and that's where we'll continue to see some use of file virtualization."


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