Bigger, smarter SANs

As networked storage solutions take on more of a multivendor shine, end-users stand to benefit.

Judging from the products that major vendors are putting on the market (or promising soon, as is the case for EMC’s virtualization router that's expected to ship in 2005), networked storage solutions are losing their proprietary slant and are becoming more open to multivendor cooperation.

Find this hard to believe? Nevertheless, it's happening, fueled by two very simple factors: Customers want it, and the media -- such as the one you are reading now -- have been advocating multivendor transparency for some time.

In addition, vendors see offering interoperability as a second chance to attract customers who chose a different vendor in the past. Take, for instance, IBM Total Storage SVC (SAN Volume Controller); its ability to provision storage from heterogeneous arrays may sound menacing to competitors, but it allows customers to consolidate their boxes under a common administrative umbrella and to make better use of their capacity.

SVC was born on IBM hardware, but in 2003, cooperation between Big Blue and Cisco produced a version for the popular Cisco MDS 9000 switch, which created an interesting blend of technologies, including VSAN (virtual SAN) and network-based, nonproprietary provisioning and virtualization.

However significant, that was only a first step -- the two companies recently announced support for an extended range of arrays and iSCSI connectivity for SVC on MDS 9000. Need I emphasize that SVC moves services such as provisioning and virtualization from the array to a network device such as the Cisco MDS switch? Welcome to the notion of intelligent fabric.

Another trend you may notice is that SANs are becoming larger. That's a side effect of consolidation, which in turn translates into adopting more director-class switches than before.

In fact, this year, revenue from director-class switches will surpass that of fabric switches, a tidbit I learned during a recent conversation with Doug Ingraham, senior director of SAN switching for CNT. And, he added, customers can expect significant savings from deploying an intelligent fabric.

As you may remember, not too long ago CNT acquired products and technology from Inrange, the manufacturer of the homonym director switches. The purpose of our recent briefing was to introduce CNT's newborn UMD (UltraNet Multi-service Director) intelligent switch.

"We are launching the ultimate multiservice director," said Ingraham, with apparent pride in his voice. CNT has good reasons to be proud of its new intelligent switch that promises great scalability and long-lasting investments with an architecture that essentially deploys the same blades across four models, ranging from a departmental, 32-port version to an enterprise-size, 512-port unit.

According to CNT, the UMD backbone should be capable of absorbing transfer rates of 5Tbps, and performance on each port should remain consistent regardless of the load and of the protocol. Furthermore, the switch will have the redundancy and robustness that you expect from a device of that class.

Equally impressive are the services that CNT has planned. Expect the ability to choose blades with just about any connectivity protocol, and services such as security, QoS, virtualization, and replication.

A first model with as many as 256 ports, Fibre Channel and mainframe connectivity, and enterprise management services should be released in August, but the UMD road map for the full range of models, services, and connectivity options, including iSCSI and 10GbE, extends well into 2006. By then, you should have a pretty good idea of what other players are doing. Stay tuned.

Mario Apicella is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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