Time to focus on wide area file services

Your recoveries worked every day last week. The new power supplies are working out fine, and so is the new hire you finally were able to get a req for. The CIO stays in his office; all's right with your world.

And then, just when you thought you were beginning to think it was safe to go back in the water again, you came to appreciate the truism that, after all, no good deed really does go unpunished.

The boss thinks you have been doing such a good job running the IT center that after the first of the year you are getting added responsibilities - you will now be supporting the IT requirements of the regional and branch offices as well. Oh goody.

Unfortunately for everyone but the disk drive companies, the data at remote sites seems to have been growing at about the same rate as it has in IT centers. It is a reasonable estimate that at least half of corporate data actually sits on storage that is outside the data center. And as most of us are also aware, remote data rarely gets the same services as centralized data.

Data at remote offices, branch offices, and at relatively inconvenient locations on a corporate or university campus represent those "islands of storage" we hear about so often these days. Their distance from core IT services means that many of the assumed benefits of centralized data storage - better data availability, lower operational expenses, improved opportunities for file sharing due to performance improvements and higher availability, easily added capacity, and the whole data center backup infrastructure - are rarely attributable to remote data.

The reasons for this have little to do with the inconvenience of servicing such data, and a whole lot to do with the fact that sending file-based data over a WAN is an inherently inefficient operation.

Common Internet File System (CIFS) and Network File System (NFS), the most common file access protocols, have been designed to work on LANs and perform very poorly across a WAN. The basic act of opening a Word file, for example, may generate hundreds of CIFS messages between client and server. The synchronous nature of these messages, plus most networks' infallible ability to lose packets, enforces latency on the process and throttles throughput.

Several companies have expended some good efforts in the past to help IT centers provide wide area file services that offer WAN-based data at LAN speeds. Tacit Networks ( http://www.tacitnetworks.com/ ), for example, has file sharing appliances for the data center and remote sites that allow remote users to access centrally stored files as if they were local to the users. And Nortel spin-off Signiant ( http://www.signiant.com/ ) provides solutions for remote data management, long-haul replication and automated content distribution to remote sites.

Now Cisco is entering the wide area file services mix with its Cisco File Engine, announced this week. More on that next time.

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