SAN Management Shifts Into High Gear
With increases in Fibre Channel speed and interoperability and with decreases in cost, integrators can convince more customers to satisfy their storage needs with scalable SANs (storage area networks).
For VARs and integrators deploying SANs (storage area networks), Fibre Channel is fast becoming the connection technology of choice. With data transfer rates of up to 2 Gbps (gigabits per second) at distances of up to six miles (using optical fiber), Fibre Channel is superior to SCSI (small computer system interface). It permits server-free backup and high-availability clustering among multiple servers, while eliminating the kinds of scalability limitations associated with NAS (network attached storage). And unlike earlier connectivity interfaces, Fibre Channel was specifically designed for SANs. That purposeful design enhances enterprise-level support of applications such as data warehousing, data mining, and OLTP (online transaction processing).
Too Much SAN Too Soon
Despite the obvious benefits of Fibre Channel-enabled SAN deployments, industry insiders advise VARs and integrators to use caution when considering customers' storage needs. "Customers today may not require a fully integrated SAN. Several may start with direct attached Fibre Channel storage and migrate to a switched storage network in the future," said Greg Mangold, VP of marketing for Chaparral Network Storage, Inc. (Longmont, CO). "Some customers may have existing SCSI storage devices they want to integrate into their new storage network." Elaine Pleshek, director of business alliances for Crossroads Systems, Inc. (Austin, TX), agrees that many customers need to start small when it comes to enterprise storage management. "I suspect overselling is the biggest mistake VARs make. If you sell a large SAN infrastructure into a company that isn't ready to manage and maintain it, you could be opening yourself up to problems," Pleshek said. "One of the primary benefits of a Fibre Channel SAN is its scalability. Start small and leverage your customers' existing SCSI technology for data backup and storage. If you sell them too much too soon, they won't realize the true benefits of Fibre Channel and won't be back for more."
Interoperability Brings Credibility To SAN Infrastructures
Some VARs and integrators hesitate to sell Fibre Channel SANs. Their fears often stem either from wrongheaded notions about storage system problems or from experiences with product compatibility mismatches. The notions are unfounded. The experiences are avoidable. Skip Jones, director of planning and technology for QLogic Corp. (Aliso Viejo, CA) and chairman of the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA), refutes those who blame Fibre Channel when storage networks don't work smoothly. "When we drill down to the problem, we often uncover the expectation that all of the components from multiple software and hardware platforms would plug and play. The same compatibility issues exist regardless of the physical wire and transport protocol technology used," Jones said. "Unfortunately, a bogus perception begins to develop that somehow Fibre Channel is the culprit. Most compatibility problems are upstream from the wire and transport protocol and come from building the SAN topology, not from using Fibre Channel as its interconnect."
Because of compatibility issues, storage vendors advise VARs to use only products that offer proven interoperability within a Fibre Channel SAN environment. "VARs and integrators need to piece together complete solutions from different vendors. Therefore, they need to look for components that not only offer the latest technology but also conform to industry standards," said Clark F. Foy, marketing VP for Gadzoox Networks (San Jose, CA). "Via new standards and conformity testing, developers of Fibre Channel products have made a concerted effort to improve interoperability. For Fibre Channel SANs, the key standard is FC-SW-2. As with any technology, VARs and integrators need to be wary of proprietary technology and vendor lock-in. They should look for open, standards-based components." Mangold agrees. "Interoperability has been one of the biggest challenges in the deployment of Fibre Channel SANs. Industry organizations, such as FCIA and SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association), have developed interoperability testing programs to verify products in multiple SAN configurations. Many storage vendors offer interoperability certification programs, which allow VARs to confidently sell fully tested solutions," Mangold said.
Jones points to FCIA's SANmark seal as one reliable indication of a storage product's Fibre Channel SAN compatibility. "SANmark is a kind of 'Good Housekeeping' program whereby compliance and qualification test suites are developed for the different parts of a SAN," Jones explained.
Jack Cuthbert, VP of sales, marketing, and support services for Brocade Communications Systems, Inc. (San Jose, CA), reminds integrators of the wide range of system components to which interoperability tests must be applied. "In storage networking, end users need complete solutions, including switches, storage units, HBAs (host bus adapters), tape devices, and the software to provision and manage the SAN. Customers are looking to VARs and integrators to deliver a total SAN solution to them. The storage area network must be addressed as a whole, rather than as individual equipment and software purchases," Cuthbert said.
Storage Management Software Takes The Lead
In the next few years, Fibre Channel will be capable of delivering even more of what it delivers a lot of now - speed. "We'll see 2 Gbps data transfer rates being adopted this year, and 10 Gbps development well underway for 2002 entry and 2003 adoption," Jones said. "However, the disk drive industry, not able to incorporate expensive optics into the disk peripherals, will stay with copper wire and migrate to 4 Gb from the current 2 Gb."
In addition to increased speeds, the future will bring storage virtualization and a corresponding shift in emphasis from SAN hardware components to storage management software applications. "VARs and integrators will find themselves increasingly taking the hardware for granted," Jones said. "We will see the evolution of software components that fully orchestrate the underlying physical technology into a SAN of symphonic dimensions." Cuthbert agrees that software will become the key SAN component. "Advanced management capabilities are another feature on the horizon," Cuthbert said. "As storage networks evolve, Fibre Channel fabric management will continue to be integrated into mainstream network and storage management applications. This will make Fibre Channel networks even easier to manage and optimize."
A final, welcome advance will be cost reductions that should drive business for Fibre Channel SAN integrators. "IP (Internet protocol) storage will place a lot of pressure on vendors to push Fibre Channel prices down to stay competitive with emerging technologies," Pleshek said. Foy agrees that decreasing costs are on the horizon. "The new standards will enable heterogeneous SANs, increasing competition and driving down prices," Foy said. "In addition, Fibre Channel-based SANs are becoming easier to manage. The combination of these trends will result in a dramatic growth of the market."Questions about this article? E-mail the author at TomV @corrypub.com.