SAN: The Holy Grail?
The cost of tape, per megabyte, is still decreasing, but the cost to manage stored data is increasing. VARs can offer SANs (storage area networks) as a way to centralize storage and decrease costs - once total solutions become available and standards have been established.
"We all want to reach the Holy Grail of backup and restore," muses Doug Davis, president and CEO of Tape Laboratories, Inc. (Los Angeles). "We'd like to have all the tape resource devices off the host computer and all the tape management to function without taking up processing cycles on the host computer. Then, we will have achieved true serverless backup and SAN (storage area network) management."
According to Davis, tape is no longer just a non-critical peripheral. Now it's a market where companies' data needs are so big that tape is a critical part of IT (information technology). "Our business five years ago was to help the customer decide what technology to buy. The choice depended on first, capacity, and second, speed. Today the decision is more complex because the customer has to redesign its IT structure in order to assure 'time to data,' or in other words, quick access. We have to figure out how to include the customer's tape technology and the growth path."
Davis sees three main reasons for the growth in the tape market. The first is the explosion of data, which affects both the tape and disk market. "Data is growing exponentially," he said.
"Take e-mail as an example. When you get a message today, it's one or two KB of data. HTML (hypertext markup language) might be 25 KB. We'll reach the point where e-mail regularly has sound and video embedded. Then each one can contain a MB or more of data. Large companies will have millions of e-mails to back up and archive. They will need a thousand times more capacity just to store e-mail."
"The second reason for tape's growth is the advent of tape automation," he said. "The tape market could have died without the proliferation of robotics and tape libraries." The third factor is that the cost per MB of tape is still low.
The corporate IT user finds that, in order to back up and maintain data, one or more multi-drive tape libraries are necessary. The enterprise-level environment may have multiple platforms, for example, running Windows NT, UNIX, and OS/400. If a company goes from 50 GB of data two years ago to five TB (terabytes) today, the same systems administrator has to manage that increase in data and systems. This often happens without an increase in staffing.
Tape Laboratories, Inc., with 40 employees, traces its roots back 10 years. It offers the ability to take all the tape resources in an enterprise and share them across multiple operating systems.
"What's frightening everyone," said Davis, "is that everyone is talking about Fibre Channel and SAN as though they can be implemented NOW." He used an example of a company that has 25 SCSI (small computer systems interface) tape drives, all attached to individual platforms running different software. "Integrators are telling companies that they have to have Fibre Channel. Then, they tell their clients that they need a Fibre Channel to SCSI conversion. If Fibre Channel is just being used as a SCSI distance extender today, why incur the expense of Fibre Channel?"
Davis added, "To control a Fibre Channel SAN, you need to have architectural connections and software management. Fibre Channel converts to SCSI very well architecturally. But, in order for the device to work, the software and the driver controlling it have to be able to communicate via the Fibre Channel/SCSI path. Drive manufacturers announced native Fibre Channel tape drives at COMDEX, yet no native tape driver protocol exists under the Fibre Channel standard. So, if you take a native Fibre Channel tape device, how do you control it? This is one of the issues that manufacturers and advisory bodies, like SNIA and the Fibre Channel Association, must address."
Pitfalls Of SAN
Davis said the biggest problem with SAN is that there is no seamless SAN solution from one vendor. "You can buy a tape library here, a RAID there, a Fibre Channel to SCSI converter box, a hub, a router, and some software from different vendors. But there's no guarantee that it's all going to work together."
Davis advises VARs not to say they can sell SAN solutions until they have made sure all the components have been tested together. "As an example, Breece Hill has a new testing lab for SAN solutions. The lab recreates the customer environment. Breece Hill can test everything together for three months and then install it at the customer site."
Another concern Davis has relates to support. "VARs are so excited to sell, that they forget about supporting the solution. If you buy all that hardware and software from different vendors, who's going to support the final installation? When vendors put together full SAN solutions, support will be easier."
SAN Has Its Benefits
Davis discussed the major benefits of SAN. "It would allow a large amount of data per IT administrator," he said. "For the IT user, SAN frees up the main computer for other tasks. It also provides flexibility in terms of location and type of storage attached to the enterprise structure. Fibre Channel isn't as limited by cable distances the way SCSI is."
SAN gives the ability to put storage on a network and manage it. Without it, you have one tape resource connected to one computer via SCSI. You shouldn't take a huge amount of tape storage and attach it to one computer if you have many large capacity servers. You have to put tape on a network, so all computers can talk to all storage at high speed. You could take that tape resource and plug it into a SAN. Today, IT users often buy a tape drive for every workstation. SAN aims to centralize backup for the enterprise. If they could buy a 10-drive, 500-cartridge tape library and use it on 100 workstations, IT users could conceivably reduce costs by up to 90 tape drives.
Davis sees the average sale becoming larger as SAN solutions become more common for systems integrators. "A single mid-range tape drive is around $5,000. A SAN solution is at least a $100,000 sale. Customers will show more loyalty to their SAN suppliers than they would to a simple drive supplier. Once a VAR installs a sophisticated solution, after having spent a year designing, implementing, and supporting it, the customer won't shift loyalties quickly."
Davis doesn't think the SAN market will hit $16 billion within the next two years. "Acceptance of SAN will be slower to adopt than most people think. It's a huge opportunity for systems integrators. There's no question that it's going to be big; it's just a matter of when."
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at AnnD@corrypub.com.