The storage war heats up

E-business is all about the ability to adjust scale quickly. In hardware terms, that may mean adding terabytes of storage to your network fast. Prompted by an influx of new players, competition among network storage vendors has reached a fever pitch, promising lower costs for big storage-but also raising questions about how best to proceed.

A year ago, the dominant names in network storage were clear. Network Appliance held sway in the Network-Attached Storage (NAS) market. NAS systems, exemplified by the company's popular Enterprise Filer series, can be plugged in, almost like an appliance, to a local area network, adding storage capacity without requiring a cumbersome upgrade. Thanks to snazzy cross-platform software, the new box full of hard disks instantly becomes available to the entire network. Meanwhile, EMC Corp. dominated the high end of the market, selling towering beasts such as its wardrobe-size, mainframe-compatible Symmetrix Enterprise Storage Systems. EMC concentrated on providing the hardware, software, and services needed to set up multimillion-dollar Storage Area Networks (SANs), which typically rely on the superfast Fibre Channel to connect storage behemoths.

More recently, though, the market has become a free-for-all. EMC recently introduced the Clariion IP4700, which starts at US$82,000 - roughly half the price of comparable Network Appliance storage servers. Network Appliance countered by announcing support for mainframes and databases made by EMC's biggest high-end rival, IBM Corp. Just a few months earlier, IBM had joined with Compaq Computer Corp. to create an alternate SAN standard that encroached on EMC's turf. Not to be left behind, Dell Computer announced that it would sell its PowerVault line of NAS servers at prices well below those of both EMC and Network Appliance Inc. Subsequently, Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Hitachi Data Systems Corp. have upped the ante, widening and deepening their own competing lines. And more than 20 top storage providers have banded together to compete against the complicated Fibre Channel pathway by offering high-speed SANs over conventional networks.

What's a company to do? "Stay open-ended," advises Dan Tanner, senior analyst for storage and storage management at Aberdeen Group Inc. "NAS and SAN are slowly converging. So consider storage systems with hardware or software commonalities that will permit eventual reuse in a converged infrastructure."

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