Technology takes the prize

Storage vendors lay groundwork for expansion

Following the storage market is like watching a three-ring circus: it’s never boring, but there’s so much happening, it’s easy to miss part of the action.

Despite the slow economy, storage vendors offered an impressive number of innovative products in 2003. Improved or newly forged technologies included storage media, disk and tape drives, and controllers and arrays.

Innovations seeded in 2002, such as SATA (Serial ATA) and iSCSI, were improved in 2003, while vendors laid the groundwork for promising new technologies such as SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) and small-form-factor drives with enterprise-class performance to take off in 2004.

My pick for the most popular storage technology in 2003 goes to iSCSI, the transport protocol for encapsulated SCSI commands that enables servers to control remote disk drives via Ethernet links. Already supported by storage switch vendors such as Cisco Systems and McData, iSCSI can also count on fast-performing HBAs (host bus adapters) from trusted vendors such as Adaptec Emulex, Intel, and QLogic. Moreover, iSCSI drivers for Windows from Microsoft and IBM, as well as open source drivers for Linux systems, allow the use of generic Ethernet controllers for less-demanding applications.

In addition to fuelling low-cost SANs, the flexibility of iSCSI has inspired the creation of data-protection appliances such as the StorageTek EchoView, a relentless change-logging machine geared toward securing data on mission-critical application servers, and the Okapi Software ipXcelerator, a disk-based backup device. Especially interesting is the EchoView appliance, which allows you to revert a protected server volume to any point in time before a data corruption — much more effective than using traditional backup applications or volume snapshots.

For entry-level and mid-tier datacentres, iSCSI imparts the benefits of networked storage without the high purchasing cost and administrative overhead of Fibre Channel. Nevertheless, the expected mass migration from direct attached storage hasn’t happened yet, probably because of the uncertain economy, but perhaps also because some aspects of the iSCSI protocol such as remote boot and security are still evolving.

The SATA drive interface, descended from humble desktop and small-server ancestors, was expected to have a bigger impact on enterprise storage in 2003 than it did. Nevertheless, SATA did manage to put roots down for 2004. By delivering high capacity and fast transfer rates at low cost over point-to-point connections, SATA drives are proving to be the happy medium between high-performance Fibre Channel and SCSI disks and tapes.

Not surprisingly, all disk drive vendors now offer SATA models. Two deserve special mention: Fujitsu delivered the first 2.5in SATA drive, and Western Digital Corp pushed drive performance past the 10,000rpm barrier with its Raptor model.

In time, SATA drives will replace ATA on desktops and servers. It may even carve out new niches, thanks to its common interface with SAS. Replacing parallel SCSI with faster, more flexible serial connections and drives, SAS is expected to become the alpha male of disk drive technologies in 2004. We can expect to see controllers that can support hundreds of SAS or SATA drives in the coming year.

Adaptec, Hewlett-Packard, Maxtor, Fujitsu, and Seagate Technology LLC offered samples of SAS technology last year, and other vendors could soon follow suit. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine storage arrays that mount both high-performing SAS and cost-effective SATA drives, saving customers both money and floor space. Speaking of space, Seagate not only entered the 2.5in mobile-drive market in 2003, but also proposed similarly sized enterprise-class drives. Adopting a smaller format should facilitate the construction of storage arrays that would require less electricity, cooling, and physical space while offering capacity and performance comparable to today’s arrays. Indeed, Fujitsu presented the first small-format SAS drives just before year’s end.

Heading into 2004, all of these storage technologies represent low-hanging fruit ripe for the harvest. If a stronger economy opens the gate on storage spending this year, expect a flood of innovation.

Story by Mario Apicella

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