Interview: LeftHand Networks simplifies IP storage

Inventive IP storage company LeftHand Networks has a new idea for reducing the complexity of networked Fibre Channel storage called NUS (Network Unified Storage). Developed by the Boulder, Colo.-based company and improved following LeftHand's acquisition of North Fork, NUS storage and LeftHand's Network Storage Module 100 have begun to change the way users view IP storage networks. Bill Chambers, CEO of LeftHand, talks with InfoWorld Senior Writer Dan Neel about the implications of NUS in the storage market and what makes NUS unique.

Q; LeftHand brings a new term to the storage industry, what you call NUS. With customers only recently getting accustomed to Fibre Channel SANs [storage area networks] and Ethernet-based NAS [network-attached storage] systems, are users ready for the difference that NUS brings?Chambers: I'm talking to quite a few customers and, yes, they're really looking for alternatives to Fibre Channel technology. And the concerns they have around their direct-attached storage [are] so great that they are looking for vehicles out of that, and are very open to leveraging their existing infrastructures for our approach. So, yes, we're seeing a good response there. And it's really an exciting time for us because there's been a tremendous response from the marketplace for our products. Our network storage modules really offer the perfect vehicle for a customer to move from direct-attached storage to network-attached storage, in a seamless manner, leveraging the infrastructure they already have in place.

Q: Describe how it works.

Chambers: Well, our 1U-high network storage module connects directly to an enterprise customers' Ethernet network. And what makes it powerful is that as you add a second or a third module to the network, our software technology clusters those together and virtualizes those. So what the application or database server would see is the original unit growing in size. You don't see different instances on the network. And that's very powerful because these modules can be located anywhere on the network and clustered together.

Q: How important was your acquisition of North Fork in bringing the NUS idea into reality?Chambers: That was really something. They had a technology that really fit perfectly with our vision of what storage should be. It's a technology that allows us to accelerate our plans of what we were going to be able to offer as far as clustering virtualization and replication. We were actually going to be releasing a 16-way cluster, the ability to cluster up to 16 boxes. What North Fork does for us is it allows us to, by the middle of this year, release an unlimited cluster, limited only by network bandwidth. This will allow customers to continue to scale both capacity and performance.

Q: LeftHand products can handle both block and file data over IP, but unlike other companies planning to offer the same kinds of products, you don't come right out and call LeftHand an iSCSI play. How come?Chambers: Well, we have developed a technology that we call Advanced Ethernet Block Storage, what we refer to as AEBS. And AEBS is really a technology that has been developed by both network and storage engineers for block transfer over IP networks. It's an agnostic protocol that will support iSCSI as the standard is finalized, but it has a number of very high-performance features that customers more interested in applications, such as databases over IP networks, will find [to be] a real advantage.

Q: What about investment protection going forward?Chambers: AEBS is really protocol agnostic. If customers want to start with it, then switch to iSCSI, it's completely supportive as they roll forward. Plus, you get the advantages of not only the unlimited clustering, but you get truly a fault-tolerant storage environment that allows for replication over local and wide area networks.

Q: There's a lot of talk about security when connecting Fibre Channel storage to IP networks, but would you agree with most vendors that security is an end-user responsibility?Chambers: I do believe that's true. I think that the vendor offers the tools and the architecture, but the implementation of that really is the end-user's responsibility. I think what's also important is to look for solutions that can leverage best-in-breed security technologies as [they] improve. And that's what we've designed in our system. Really the way our system works is it allows the customer to leverage best-of-breed [technologies, and] ... as the industry moves forward from the security perspective, they can continue to grow with it, without having to change the fundamental system.

Q: LeftHand products are essentially Linux-based. What's the advantage to Linux in storage?Chambers: I think the Linux element offers vendors a tremendous advantage. Linux is really ideally suited for embedded types of applications, such as storage sub-systems. And it's been used in a wide variety of applications and really gives a good, solid platform that offers a fundamental building block to vendors to provide world-class solutions to customers. So I believe that as that goes forward, that underlying Linux foundation will be key for high-performance systems as they grow forward.

Q: Both IBM and Dell are in pursuit of modular storage products such as LeftHand's. Why should storage boxes follow the lead of modular server blades?Chambers: Customers are really resonating with the fact that we've got a modular approach that can scale seamlessly. In fact, a customer can start with one of our entry-level systems for about $15,000, and then as they outgrow that they can continue to buy and scale with that. There [are] a couple of advantages for users [in that approach]. One is, we all know the price of storage decreases year-over-year, and so users don't need to buy more storage today -- at what would be a higher price -- than they need today. They buy what they need, when they need it. So, that really resonates with them. Our solution also uses about a third of the electrical power of a conventional system because of the way it's designed. Over the past 12 months or so, customers have become less sensitive to power consumption issues, but I do believe that we'll see that trend turn back around as we start to see larger and larger systems deployed. I think customers will come back and will be looking at power consumption.

Q: What's your advice to companies struggling with storage purchase decision?Chambers: The advice I would offer is to really look for a system that allows them to purchase what they need today while continuing to grow with them and grow with their needs as their demand increases and as their organizational complexity increases. If you look at our approach, we start with a 1U-high storage module that has a half a terabyte of storage. You can buy that today and as you run out of space on that, you can add a second and a third [module] to the network. That really gives a customer a lot of flexibility because base modules can be located anywhere on a network. And depending on the quality of service, that could be [located] locally in the datacenter or it might even be [located] at remote offices [and] managed and pooled together as one storage view. I believe that storage is clearly moving onto the network as network bandwidth continues to increase. And what customers should be looking for is not storage that's just connected via a switch, but storage that can live anywhere on their network and [can] be managed and seen to all of their servers as one common pool of storage.

Q: What drives you on a day-to-day basis?Chambers: The customers. Since we launched our product, I'm spending quite a bit of time face-to-face with the customers and key re-sellers, and it's tremendously rewarding to see the response to our technology when people really understand how seamlessly this integrates into their existing environments. In fact, one customer referred to it as completely transparent to their server, operating system, and applications, so they get all those benefits of networked storage without any of the complexity. So, that's what really drives me and fires me up. It's getting in front of the customers, helping them understand, helping them see how [our products] will solve key problems that they have today.

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