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Virtualization tough to grasp

Virtualization is a practically perfect concept. But, confusion, sometimes perpetuated by vendors, is preventing it from becoming a reality for now.

Asking for a high-end storage management system with virtualization is like asking for an anti-lock braking system with skid-control.

It's a given.

At least it should be. But according to Arun Taneja, senior analyst, Enterprise Storage Group, Milford, Mass., senior analyst, Enterprise Storage Group, Milford, Mass., users cannot truly realize the full potential of SANs or NAS without virtualization.

 A three-way split

Deciding where virtualization best fits in a storage network has sparked a running debate among vendors and analysts in the industry.

Even though the definition of storage virtualization is just now taking shape, there are products on the market that represent all three approaches to virtualization. Different vendors are pushing products that achieve virtualization through software, hardware and as an appliance in the storage fabric.

"One of the original tenets of virtualization was that it is supposed to make managing storage easier, but it turns out that there are more benefits like better asset utilization," said Augie Gonzalez, director of product marketing for DataCore Software Inc. DataCore?s SANsymphony is an example of software-based virtualization

He said virtualized storage can serve more users; requires less people for management; achieves better disk utilization; and eliminates downtime caused by upgrades, adding systems or other planned procedures.

SANsymphony resides in the network and not in the storage or the host.

SANsymphony lets users mix and match storage devices into a network storage pool. Open systems application servers running Windows, Unix, NetWare and Linux are allocated virtual volumes from the pool on demand, without the hardware reconfiguration and rebooting.

Arun Taneja, senior analyst for Milford, Mass-based analyst firm the Enterprise Storage Group, sees this as the best way to implement virtualization.

"In my opinion, it should definitely be implemented in the "cloud", i.e. the network," he said.

This approach, according to Taneja, is what has brought on vendors like DataCore, StorageApps (now HP), FalconStor and many others.

Ottawa-based StorageQuest Inc., designed a storage appliance that sits between a server platform and the storage devices called Multiservices Storage Manager. A product that the company's chief technology officer, Rob Oakley, calls an "interoperability box."

"If you really want to virtualize you need to do it outside of the [array]. You need to be an appliance," said Oakley.

While the industry is heralding virtualization as beneficial for any size storage network, the real value, according to Gonzalez, is in the large enterprise storage environments.

Compaq's StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array and XIOtech's Magnitude SAN are examples of virtualization inside the storage array.

Kevin Komiega

And, while a number of vendors are touting virtualization capabilities, it still remains an elusive concept to most users.

"They can ask for better storage management, easier scalability, ability to use different vendor's storage, mix and match storage types and better tools," he said. "Virtualization makes these benefits possible. However, the vendor community needs to deal with it, not the end user."

"Virtualization is one of the most important technologies to come to market," Taneja said. "Every vendor wants their name attached to it and as a result it got over hyped and different meanings got associated with it, to each vendor's advantage."

Simply put, virtualization is the pooling of data from multiple devices into what appears to be a single device that is managed from a central console. A virtual storage device appears as one device to the operating system, regardless of the types of storage devices pooled.

Its purpose: To mask the complexities and details of all of the storage systems.

The technology can be placed on different levels of a storage network. Users can implement virtualization with software, as a hardware and software hybrid appliance that sits somewhere in the fabric and redirects or services input/output traffic, or within the storage array itself.

So, if virtualization is the perfect solution industry experts say it is, what is keeping the mainstream storage users from warming up to the technology? The analysts say confusion is the culprit.

"There's confusion on the part of the user community," said John Webster, senior analyst and IT advisor, for the Nashua, N.H. - based research firm Illuminata, Inc.

Webster said that the point of virtualization is to simplify, but what is happening in the industry is exactly the opposite.

"The user community sees [virtualization] as just another layer of complexity," he said. A problem that leaves users that are only now learning the ins and outs of Fibre Channel SANs, another technology they need to educate themselves about.

"How do we virtualize the environment that we're just trying to learn how to use? It's like we're trying to run when we can't even walk," Webster said.

With the industry clamoring for clarity and defined parameters for what virtualization is and where it should be implemented, Webster says organizations like the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) could bring us closer to a clear understanding of [virtualization technology].

The mainstream adoption of virtualization depends on a better understanding of the technology.

"It would be great if an organization like the SNIA were to take an aggressive posture and blow the smoke away," he said.

In fact, the SNIA is working on defining virtualization. However, despite its best intentions to bring respect to virtualization by defining it in non-ambiguous terms, this will take some time and "the horse has already left the barn," said Wayne Rickard, Chairman, SNIA Technical Council and senior vice president and chief technology officer at Gadzoox Networks, Inc. "While the industry is waiting for an authoritative SNIA position, the vendors who make up part of our membership are out there with their own definitions."

Rickard agrees that the industry as a whole is confused. "The analogy I use for the industry describing virtualization today is that it is like trying to describe a game of Paper/Scissor/Rock without the rock. So, of course, every vendor has to be the scissors."

According to one vendor, there is a religious debate in the storage world instead of vendors focusing on adopting open standards.

"It's a bit of a dog's breakfast out there. There's storage all over the network, and it has been managed up until now, but it needs to come together faster," said Michael Hornby, a spokesperson for StorageQuest.

Let us know what you think about the story, e-mail Kevin Komiega, assistant news editor


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