SAN-in-a-box: Fibre Channel performance at iSCSI prices?

SAN kits for SMBs may provide a viable alternative to IP-based technologies ... provided that they can deliver FC performance at something approaching iSCSI ease-of-use.

At issue: SAN kits for small and medium-sized businesses may provide a viable alternative to IP-based technologies ... provided that they can deliver the customary Fibre Channel performance at something approaching iSCSI ease-of-use.

With vendors of alternative technologies such as iSCSI and NAS nipping at their heels, some of the powerhouses of the Fibre Channel SAN world have begun a counterattack.

In the third quarter of 2004, HP and QLogic announced The HP StorageWorks MSA1000 Small Business SAN Kit and Emulex announced a point product, the FibreSpy switch-on-a-chip, which promises to contribute to making SANs more affordable. Dubbed SAN-in-a-box or SAN-in-a-can by industry observers, the new wave of products are priced aggressively compared to traditional SAN products and also aim to deliver much greater ease of use.

John Webster at the Data Mobility Group says the phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that SAN vendors are running out of major growth opportunities in the enterprise space and are now looking to the small and medium-sized (SMB) space for new, untapped growth potential. The problem these vendors face, notes Webster is that new FC networks must compete with IP technology, which is established and well understood.

"As a result FC has to compete with IP-based NAS in that space -- and NAS is cheap," he says.

Similarly, Arun Taneja, principal of the Taneja Group, reckons the FC community "is actually near panic." Having pooh-poohed alternatives like iSCSI for so long they are now scrambling to compete. To be sure, Taneja says FC performance is still needed for some users and some applications but the compelling logic and simplicity of IP-based technologies are proving to be very attractive for a great many -- to the point where users are even trying to apply it "in places where it may not be appropriate."

Still, Taneja says it is not too late for FC vendors. "I think the time for SAN-in-a-can is here -- if vendors can deliver on ease of use. Without that, it doesn't matter what the price is," says Taneja.

Taneja sees early indications that vendors "get it." For instance, he notes, traditionally when you want a RAID array in the FC world, you must also figure on the additional cost of an external switch. Now, however, Taneja says there is a growing impetus within the FC community to put the switch in the array itself. The Emulex Fibrespy is a first example of this movement, he says.

While it's too early to tell just how good the offerings of the SAN-in-a-box movement will turn out to be, Taneja is betting they will end up creating a kind of new equilibrium between FC and its competition. "It will depend on iSCSI performance and FC ease of use," he adds.

"The cost effectiveness issue is really one for FC SAN vendors," adds Webster. "Can they compete with the IP alternatives and still make money on both the sell and the support sides of the transaction? That's the challenge," he adds.

For more information:

Article: SAN-in-a-box for under $10K

Webcast: SAN School

Learning Guide: Low-cost storage

About the author: Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass.

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