Good things are in store

After years of mostly missing the mark, storage vendors are delivering a

brand-new kind of product that is finally delivering the goods for storage-area

networks. These so-called SAN appliances are designed to solve the toughest

problem that agencies face when building SANs — making storage devices and

servers from different vendors work together.

Two of the most recent introductions are from Dell Computer Corp. and

storage networking vendor Gadzoox Networks Inc. Both companies will begin

shipping their SAN appliances to customers this month. The appliances are

specialized file servers that connect directly to the SAN and organize all

the storage devices into one large pool of communal storage, which is then

available to any server connected to the SAN.

A SAN is a high-speed, special-purpose network that connects servers

to storage devices. Network switches in the SAN enable any server to access

data on any storage device, at least theoretically, without affecting the

regular local-area network.

"This is the missing link in Fibre Channel SANs," said Steve Duplessie,

senior analyst with market researcher Enterprise Storage Group. "The biggest

problems users face are complexity and interoperability issues. At a fundamental

level, that's what the SAN appliance addresses."

SANs were supposed to solve the problems of traditional storage architecture,

in which storage devices are attached directly to servers via SCSI or some

other standard interface. Among the problems was that too often storage

capacity attached to one server went unused while another server on the

network might quickly outgrow its available capacity.

By unshackling storage from servers, Fibre Channel-based SANs would

minimize inefficiency by letting IT managers easily add, reconfigure and

reallocate communal storage resources in the SAN as needed to keep up with

growing or changing storage requirements.

But most of the current SAN management software only works properly if all

the storage devices are from the same vendor and if the servers connected

to the SAN run the same operating system. Even then, SANs are fairly tricky

to set up and manage.

Analysts expect that SAN appliances will help overcome these limitations,

if not entirely with this current wave of new products, then certainly soon.

Besides being the central point for managing the multiple storage arrays

and switches in the SAN (see diagram), SAN appliances are also designed

to be simple to buy, install and maintain. For example, Dell's new PowerVault

530F SAN appliance comes in only one Intel Corp. Pentium-based configuration

and is pre-loaded with the SAN management software that acts as the brains

of the SAN. Dell uses SAN software from StorageApps Inc.

"The beauty of the SAN appliance is that it doesn't require any additional

software on the servers," said Bruce Kornfeld, Dell's director of marketing

for PowerVault storage.

One important benefit of the Dell SAN appliance is that users can create

a disaster-recovery solution by deploying two PowerVault 530Fs in different

locations. The local PowerVault 530F and its set of storage arrays act as

the primary storage resource, while an exact copy of the data can be written

in real time and maintained by a PowerVault 530F and arrays at another location.

This remote mirroring can take place over the Fibre Channel SAN at distances

up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), or over even greater distances using IP-based

networks.

Dell's PowerVault 530F also lets customers organize multiple storage

arrays into one pooled resource, or what the industry calls "storage virtualization."

However, for now the PowerVault 530F only does that with Windows NT/2000-based

servers and storage arrays. The PowerVault 530F began shipping last week

and lists for less than $50,000.

Unlike the Dell product, the two SAN appliances that Gadzoox Networks

will begin shipping at the end of this month will deliver storage virtualization

in heterogeneous environments. "As long as the server has a Fibre Channel

card in it and can plug into the switch, I can give it access to the storage

pool," said Erik Ottem, director of solutions marketing at Gadzoox.

The Gadzoox appliances come in two models and can support various vendors'

storage devices and servers running Linux, Unix, Windows NT/2000 and Novell

Corp.'s NetWare, Ottem said. Both models include SAN management software

from DataCore Software Corp.

The Gadzoox Axxess 200 bundle includes an appliance that has two Intel

Xeon Pentium III processors and a Gadzoox Capellix 2000 Fibre Channel switch,

which supports up to nine system connections. It lists for $50,000. The

Axxess 400 bundle includes an appliance that has four Xeon Pentium III processors

and comes with a Capellix 3000 switch, which can support up to 27 system

connections. It lists for $110,000.

What the current versions of the Axxess products don't provide is the

remote copy and data snapshot capabilities for creating a remote disaster-recovery

solution. Those features will be available in the Axxess products around

the end of year, Ottem said.

There's little doubt that vendors will continue to focus their attention

on delivering more functionality to the SAN itself. By supporting data virtualization

and remote mirroring and recovery capabilities, SAN appliances offer traditionally

high-end data processing features for a lot less money. By being relatively

simple to buy and operate, they also address another key piece of the equation:

staff cost.

"With the cost of storage coming down 40 percent a year, storage is cheap

to buy but expensive to manage," said Gary Wright, Compaq Computer Corp.'s

director of marketing for enterprise storage software. "And people expenses

are going up, not down. You have to get more productivity from the people

you have."

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