Another record year for storage, but the best is yet to come

I was browsing quickly through a bunch of references, researching thoughts for this year-end column, when all of a sudden -- perhaps due to the accumulated effect of all that reading -- it hit me: This was a very good year, perhaps even an exceptionally good year for storage.

At the end of 2004, customers are better off than they were a year ago because they can now choose from a larger variety of sizable and dependable storage solutions.

A comprehensive summary of all the new storage products released in 2004 would never fit in this space, but let me list my favorites.

Without a doubt, the growing number of SANs for entry-level customers marked a significant turning point in the evolution of networked storage systems. Vendors have expanded their target market to customers with minimal storage requirements, not much time to waste on training, and limited budgets.

Bringing the benefits of SANs to small businesses is a historical milestone, comparable to the introduction of microcomputers. At the end of 2004, a complete SAN now costs less than a car, and you can choose from many models and many reputable vendors.

High-end customers have also a broader choice of SANs, thanks to an innovative new model from Hitachi, the TagmaStore, which immediately became part of HP's and Sun's offerings.

Then again, let's not forget basic components, such as the new 300GB enterprise disk drives or the Ultrium LTO 3 (linear tape open) drive that can store 400GB of uncompressed data on a single cartridge at incredible speed, far faster than a disk drive.

That increase in capacity and speed of disk and tape drives -- the building blocks of any storage network -- probably explains why switch vendors are pushing new devices with ports capable of 4Gbps and 10Gbps transfer rates despite repeated claims that current users can't saturate even the 2Gbps fabrics.

Perhaps the best indication that customers are being served well is that, despite an economy still sputtering in low gear and a tense international landscape, they are buying more storage. It's too soon for final statistics, but everything seems to indicate that general storage vendors have increased their revenues during the past year.

What's coming next year for storage? Plenty of interesting novelties, in my opinion. One still unexplored area is SAS (Serial Attached SCSI), the emerging technology that will bring the venerable SCSI protocol up to speed with the more demanding requirements of the new millennium. I was expecting to see the first SAS products appear by the end of 2004, but vendors seem to be occupied with fine-tuning interoperability issues. In fact, the latest SAS plug-fest just happened in December and saw hundreds of vendors' engineers cross blades at the InterOperability Laboratory (IOL) of the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Both Harry Mason, president of the SCSI Trade Association and director of industry marketing at LSI Logic, and David Woolf, SAS consortium manager at IOL, assured me that the latest plug-fest was a success. Therefore, it's reasonable to anticipate that although more plug-fests are planned, vendors should be shipping SAS products in the second half of next year.

I also expect the battle around storage management applications to rekindle next year (did it ever pipe down?), with some of the big themes that were hinted at in 2004 -- such as compliance and grid computing -- becoming workable and widespread.

With the combination of advances in these two major areas and the expected, relentless dripping of new products that will exploit this year's novelties, I can't wait for 2005 to begin. Think of new tape libraries built around the capacious, wickedly fast LTO3 tapes -- and that's just the start.

2005 will be another remarkable and exciting year for storage, I'm sure. Happy holidays.

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

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