IBM, Sun offer new storage-system options

Several developments in the high-end storage market this month offer federal data centers significantly better performance from their mainframe storage systems and provide valuable new options for those who want to consolidate storage or build storage-area networks (SANs).

From IBM Corp., the developments include a new Fibre Channel-based connection, called FICON, for hooking up IBM's large disk storage arrays to its mainframe computers. Agencies also will be able to use FICON to connect mainframe storage directly to the Fibre Channel SANs that many information technology shops use to manage data from computers that run the Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows operating systems.

Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems Inc. announced that it would sell under its own brand name a high-end disk system manufactured by Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd. The system features a storage capacity well beyond Sun's previous top-of-the-line product. It also means that agencies can now hold just Sun accountable — not a different storage vendor — to make sure these high-end storage systems work with the high-availability servers and applications that many agencies build using Sun products.

IBM's FICON is the successor to, and six times faster than, the protocol now used to connect mainframes and storage peripherals — Enterprise Systems Connection (ESCON), introduced in 1990. The replacement is sorely needed, according to John McArthur, vice president of storage research for IDC.

"ESCON hasn't had any significant improvements in five years," he said. "As processing power improved and storage capacities increased, connectivity has become the bottleneck. [FICON] finally brings mainframes on par with open systems in terms of connectivity capabilities. They've been behind ever since Fibre Channel started being used."

Before FICON, McArthur said mainframe shops seriously constrained by ESCON's limitations might buy another mainframe and split the software applications across the multiple systems to spread the input/output (I/O) load — a costly solution. Using a mix of FICON and ESCON, a G6 model mainframe, for example, can address more than 2.5 times as many I/O devices as it can using ESCON alone, and the latest zSeries 900 mainframe can address more than six times as many devices, said Chris Saul, marketing program manager for IBM's main enterprise disk array system, TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Server.

FICON support for the mainframe itself has been available since last year. But because the IBM storage server — nicknamed Shark — did not support FICON until now, users had to connect the mainframe and the ESCON-based array using a FICON bridge. That configuration delivered only ESCON-grade capabilities.

Now Shark supports FICON directly. That will also help customers who want to build SANs that consolidate data from different platforms. "Because FICON is based on Fibre Channel, you'll be able to share that SAN infrastructure — the same fibers and switches — between the mainframe and the Unix and Windows environments," Saul said. "That reduces costs."

EMC Corp. and HDS also sell ESCON-based mainframe disk arrays that compete with IBM's. HDS "most definitely will support" FICON, said Robert Ward, the company's director of product management. HDS will develop its own product once it obtains the FICON specifications from IBM, which is set to happen when IBM ships its FICON array Sept. 28. Ward said it should take HDS less than a year to develop its own FICON product.

EMC also plans to develop as soon as possible native FICON support for its disk arrays, according to EMC spokes.man Mike O'Malley.

In the Sun announcement, company officials said the new Sun StorEdge 9900 disk arrays (based on HDS' Lightning 9900 arrays) are optimized for Sun's Solaris operating system and certified for high availability with the vendor's server Cluster 3.0 technology. As an illustration of that integration, customers who buy the new Sun StorEdge 9900 disk array will only have to make one phone call to resolve problems with their Sun server and storage products. McArthur said that's an important benefit.

"That's real, not just fluff," he said. "If you want guaranteed service levels from a total system — not from just a server or storage perspective — you need a real tight integration. It also gives customers the old "one throat to choke' to get things fixed."

The StorEdge 9900 can store up to 37 terabytes of raw data in a single system, compared with the 5.2 terabytes of Sun's previous largest-capacity product, the StorEdge T3 array.

"It fills a Grand Canyon-size hole in Sun's product line," McArthur said.

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