Virtualisation on the tech check list

With at least four major vendors selling or getting ready to release virtualization products to pool storage for easier allocation and management, users at Storage Networking World in the US yesterday said now is the time to be testing the technology.

Lynn Neal, a senior systems integrator at Sprint, said she's pushing the idea of virtualization to upper management because of its potential to create a more automated hierarchical storage management architecture on her 160TB SAN.

"(Virtualization) would be implemented in the fabric layer. That will be where we'll be able to achieve the functionality we want," Neal said, referring to management of a SAN with applications from several vendors.

Virtualization technology, which makes the disk space on different arrays or servers look like a single pool of storage, is the cornerstone of efforts to develop more automated storage infrastructures. Currently, most vendors support server- or array-based virtualization, where the software is installed on a single device. Switch or network-based virtualization promises to allow disk storage devices across an entire SAN to be centrally managed and provisioned.

Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and IBM are all shipping or soon will ship products that can support virtualization approaches.

IBM is expected to announce a virtualization appliance next month, according to industry sources. The appliance, which will consist of two redundant Linux servers, will at first pool only disk capacity from IBM storage-area network arrays, either the Shark Enterprise Storage Server or the modular TotalStorage FAS servers.

Mike Zisman, IBM's vice president of corporate strategy, is scheduled to speak on virtualization at the conference today. In an interview last week, Zisman said that products will address virtualization at the block layer, file layer and management utilities.

"We expect to see dramatic reductions in (total cost of ownership). I think this will become even more important in future as ATA-based drives develop," Zisman said, referring to comparatively inexpensive near-line storage.

Tony Prigmore, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group, said users this year should expect to see the arrival of a large number of virtualization products offering the ability to manage, allocate or view storage across various vendors' hardware and software.

"Today, array-based replication has no abstraction layer. It's proprietary brand to proprietary brand," he said.

HP and EMC have announced that they will be writing software to integrate Brocade Communication's virtualization switch, called the SilkWorm Fabric Application Platform. Brocade obtained the technology as part of its January acquisition of Rhapsody Networks.

Sun's N1 data center optimization strategy includes the introduction in early 2003 of blade servers that will allow users to pool a large number of processing, storage and network equipment and make it act like a single, shared resource.

A storage administrator for a large West Coast utility said he's planning on testing a virtualization technology next week to help him better manage a 25TB SAN with both IBM Shark and EMC Symmetrix array storage.

The administrator, who asked not to be named, said pooling storage behind an appliance or network switch would allow him to more easily allocate storage based on preset policies. Today, manually allocating capacity for applications take 20 to 30 minutes on his Shark and two to three days on his Symmetrix array because of the complexity of the system, he said.

At the same time, he said, he would have a hard time persuading upper management to spend even more on already expensive switches if the software were to reside there.

"I don't know that the intelligence needs to be in the switch," said the administrator.

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