Storage networks for the masses

Sharply falling prices make Fibre Channel storage gear worth a new look

Mohave County, Ariz., faced a classic one-two storage punch: The local government was running out of capacity, but it had only a limited budget for acquiring new gear.

"We started running out of disk on our server-attached storage," said Nathan McDaniel, the county's network services manager. "We use Dell servers, and we bought them with as much disk as we thought adequate. But eventually that would be outgrown."

The county sought to migrate from direct-attached to network-based storage, but it lacked the dollars for a big-ticket purchase. And McDaniel was wary of inexpensive storage-area networks (SANs) based on Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) drives. "That's not what I consider enterprise class," he said.

Instead, Mohave County opted for a Fibre Channel SAN from Xiotech. Although the SAN significantly exceeded the county's initial $40,000 budget, McDaniel considers it a solid investment because of its performance. The county bought the SAN with 4 terabytes of capacity but has since upgraded it to more than 10 terabytes.

Fibre Channel SANs have become a viable option for small to midsize customers such as Mohave County. Many observers had considered SAN technology to be too expensive and complicated for all but the largest and most sophisticated customers. But a drop in Fibre Channel component pricing has enabled vendors to offer products to a broader customer base. Vendors have also simplified their Fibre Channel offerings, which has contributed to the increase in demand at the lower end of the market.

The reconstituted Fibre Channel SANs, however, aren't suited to every customer. IP-based SANs, typically equipped with Serial ATA drives, are still less expensive than Fibre Channel, even with that technology's price reduction. IP SANs also allow buyers to make use of their existing Ethernet infrastructure and networking staff.

But for customers looking for performance, Fibre Channel may be the way to go, some industry executives say. "The move toward Fibre Channel is to have the best of both worlds," said Robyn Danz, a storage specialist at CDW Government, noting the technology's combination of performance and lower prices.

"The main thing is that the end user has to justify that initial cost to someone who is making the financial decision," she said. "Because the initial cost has come down, we've seen that justification become a lot easier for them."

Affordable pricing

A SAN based on the Fibre Channel networking protocol consists of switches, servers equipped with host bus adapters (HBAs), storage arrays and backup devices. A switch's ports can link to servers, storage devices or other switches, creating the Fibre Channel fabric. The HBAs connect servers to SAN resources.

Switches and HBAs, the essential plumbing of a Fibre Channel SAN, have contributed to its cost. But Fibre Channel switches, which once cost $1,000 to $1,500 per port, are now about $700, and some lower-end switches cost less than $500 per port, Danz said. Low-end Fibre Channel HBAs, meanwhile, can cost as little as $350, whereas high-end products sell in the $900 to $1,000 range. Gigabit Ethernet cards for IP SANs are still less expensive at about $100, but the gap has closed significantly.

"Industry is optimizing Fibre Channel parts for different segments of the market," said Brian Reed, vice president of business development at Emulex, which makes Fibre Channel switches and HBAs.

For a while, Fibre Channel vendors had a one-product-fits-all philosophy, Reed said. A couple of years ago, "95 percent of all Fibre Channel equipment and SANs were consumed by midrange or larger servers" that cost $25,000 or more, he said.

Today, vendors offer products designed for small and midsize organizations and departmental SANs, Reed said. Fibre Channel technology is being recast in a "high-volume way in the volume server space," he added.

Or to put it another way: "If you have a $5,000 server, you don't want to spend $1,000 for an HBA," Reed said. "But you might spend $250 to $350 for an HBA for that server."

As a consequence of the new SAN economics, vendors can offer entry-level solutions.

Danz said entry-level Fibre Channel SAN solutions could cost as little as $15,000 to $20,000 -- the price depends on the number of HBAs and ports required. "That [pricing] would have been unheard of even two years ago," she said.

New entry-level products are entering the market. In October, Xiotech launched an entry-level SAN, the Magnitude 3D 3000e, at a starting price less than $50,000.

The product "allows customers to get up and running on a SAN environment without a whole lot of investment and training and specialized resources," said Mike Stolz, vice president of marketing at Xiotech.

Simplified package

Fibre Channel's expense has been a traditional knock against the technology, but so too has its reputation for complexity. Vendors aim to alleviate that concern by designing products that emphasize simplicity.

Reed said the goal is to "make the out-of-box experience as simple as possible." Emulex's entry-level HBA product line, the LP101, includes a suite of installation and management tools. High-end HBAs have hundreds of parameters and settings that administrators must navigate, Reed said. On the LP101, "we make a lot of assumptions and default those [settings] to make installation easier," he said.

Xiotech, meanwhile, uses its virtualization and clustering software to reduce the complexity of Fibre Channel, company executives said. This approach eases installation and configuration and lets an organization's IT administrator run the system as opposed to requiring an organization to hire a SAN engineer, Stolz said.

Similarly, storage vendor iQstor Networks bundles virtualization software and its System Manager tool with its entry-level iQ1000 Fibre Channel SAN, said Albert Saraie, the company's director of marketing. System Manager lets organizations configure and manage a SAN with minimal staff requirements, Saraie said.

In addition, some vendors have made storage management features that are usually associated with enterprise products available on low-end SANs.

For example, iQstor's iQ1000 SAN with System Manager and virtualization software starts at about $20,000 for 1.1 terabyte of storage. But optional storage features can be added to the base system. An iQ1000 with snapshot, mirroring, capacity management and database agents raises the cost to about $25,000.

Jay Krone, EMC's director of Clariion marketing, said the company's Clariion CX300 is an "entry-level SAN for modest-sized organizations." Software options for the Fibre Channel SAN include EMC's SnapView snapshot and SAN Copy replication software products. The product's base cost is about $20,000.

Krone added that EMC's low-end products, which also include the Clariion AX100, demonstrate the movement of sophisticated features into more economical products.

Some storage customers, however, aren't sold on the Fibre Channel-made-simple concept. Patrick McLaughlin, data planner for the Marine Corps Second Marine Expeditionary Force, said ease of deployment and management are crucial in a tactical environment. In that respect, IP-based SANs offer an edge over Fibre Channel.

"We in the military have to deal with ease of use," McLaughlin said. If the Marines' computer school graduates can use their IP training to run a SAN, the service eliminates the expense of training them on a different technology, he said. The Marine unit has been using IP-based Network Appliance FAS 250 and 270 storage products for about 18 months.

Industry executives acknowledged that, even with Fibre Channel's improved ease-of-use factor, administrators still need to possess a working knowledge of the technology.

But the new-look Fibre Channel SAN still provides an alternative to direct-attached storage and one that is available at prices that are lower than ever.

Fibre Channel and performance

Why go with an entry-level Fibre Channel solution when IP storage-area networks (SANs) based on the Internet SCSI storage networking protocol and Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) drives remain less expensive?

Performance and reliability are the main factors. Serial ATA "and low duty cycle drives have their place in the market," said Nathan McDaniel, network services manager for Mohave County, Ariz. "But…I don't think I'd ever run critical systems on [a Serial ATA] infrastructure."

On the connectivity side, Fibre Channel provides 2 gigabits/sec and 4 gigabits/sec throughput, compared with Gigabit Ethernet's 1 gigabit/sec speed. The new 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard provides a boost for the IP SAN camp, but few government agencies use it.

Craig Schultz, manager of storage marketing at Silicon Graphics Inc., said he predicts customers will make a rapid transition to the newer 4 gigabits/sec products. He added that Fibre Channel prices are such that the company can offer the faster switches at a lower per-port price than their 2 gigabits/ sec predecessors.

Because of Fibre Channel's enterprise reputation, "the majority of customers that are doing things like running a database or anything that is going to need high performance are still going with that Fibre Channel solution," said Robyn Danz, a storage specialist at CDW Government. "An IP SAN would be a good fit for noncritical applications."

Vendors offer an intermediate alternative for customers that want to stick with Fibre Channel but don't require its performance and reliability. Companies such as EMC and iQstor Networks, for example, offer products that feature Serial ATA drives and Fibre Channel networking. Those products push the entry-level SAN price tag well below $10,000.

EMC's Clariion AX100, which ships with Serial ATA drives, sells for less than $5,000 through most resellers, said Jay Krone, director of Clariion marketing at EMC. The company offers iSCSI and Fibre Channel connectivity options for the product.

Another approach is choosing SAN products that mix low-cost and high-performance drives in the same system. EMC's Clariion CX300 and Xiotech's Magnitude 3D SAN line let customers mix Fibre Channel and Serial ATA drives.

-- John Moore

Small SAN pitfalls

Improved storage utilization, enhanced capacity and throughput scalability rank among the top benefits of switching from direct-attached storage to a storage-area network (SAN).

However, scalability can be a pitfall when buying an entry-level SAN. Starter SANs' maximum capacity per array can vary widely -- from 3 terabytes to more than 19 terabytes depending on the product.

Capacity is an important consideration when choosing an entry-level SAN, said Robyn Danz, a storage specialist at CDW Government. Buyers should ask themselves how much they can afford initially and how much they expect to grow in the future, she said.

Officials who anticipate needing twice the capacity in a year or two could end up spending more money if they don't factor expansion into their initial storage plans, Danz said.

Meanwhile, first-time Fibre Channel buyers must make sure their information technology employees understand the technology. Vendors have worked to simplify Fibre Channel, but customers "still need to be aware that there is something of a learning curve," Danz said.

Brian Reed, vice president of business development at Emulex, said most organizations deploying a lower-cost Fibre Channel SAN lack an on-staff expert and instead rely on an IT generalist "who takes on the responsibility for putting the SAN in."

But installing a SAN isn't necessarily the hard part. The complexity lies in ongoing chores such as setting up storage volumes and data-protection levels, Reed said. However, customers can expect that type of complexity regardless of the storage approach they choose.

"It's true for any storage environment," he said.

-- John Moore

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