Caution NAS, SAN Merge Ahead

Users brace for more complexity as NAS and SAN technologies converge.

Although Hugh Hale and Bob Venable oversee a large and rapidly growing pool of data—46 terabytes, so far—the storage administrators at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Inc. have managed to keep their storage environment relatively simple and easy to manage. Most data at the Chattanooga company is stored on IBM Shark hardware, routed through switches from McData Corp. and managed by tools from BMC Software Inc.

For Hale, Venable and many other enterprise storage managers, that kind of sweet simplicity may soon be a memory. Thats because many are being backed into a corner as they try to find a way to manage not only rapidly increasing amounts of data but also storage hardware and software that is growing in complexity and architectural options.

Driving that complexity is the ongoing convergence of NAS (network-attached storage) and SAN (storage area network) technologies. At the same time, vendors are readying a host of new storage options, including object-based storage and IP-based storage-on-demand technologies. The trick for storage managers, experts say, will be to take advantage of new options without increasing complexity and management costs and headaches.

Behind the NAS/SAN convergence is the move by some vendors, such as Network Appliance Inc., to push NAS technology into the enterprise by increasing its scalability and feature set—through such technologies as clustering and block-level access. Simultaneously, others, such as IBM and Compaq Computer Corp., are making SAN technology more palatable for midsize companies by making it more affordable and easier to configure.

For example, Network Appliance, of Sunnyvale, Calif., the NAS technology leader, will focus this summer on the high-end technology of block-level access and more application-specific integration in the companys NAS boxes, said CEO Dan Warmenhoven. This would dispel, Warmenhoven said, the myth that NAS is too low-performance to compete in high-end uses.

Network Appliances plans would mean SAN-like functionality at NAS-like prices and simplicity, which, today, is considered a big trade-off.

In the long term, having more choices will be good, users say. But in the short term, new technologies will be needed to help users bridge a gap between NAS and SAN that is affected by unpredictable alliances among vendors, semi-interoperable products and nonstop data growth.

Users are simply looking for ways to make their increasingly complicated lives a little simpler. "We want to have things be automatic," Hale said.

Tom Black, a storage administrator at Petro-Canada, agreed, saying the lack of product interoperability between storage devices and management software "causes more headaches right now."

Black, in Mississauga, Ontario, manages 24 terabytes of storage held in two data centers that are stocked with EMC Corp. NAS and SAN storage boxes and controlled through switches from Brocade Communications Systems Inc. This situation, users say, means having to buy and learn an array of narrowly focused management tools and hiring integration specialists.

Vendors are promising that help in managing all of the new storage technology options and complexity will be coming over the next 12 to 18 months. Much of the help appears to be coming on the heterogeneous management software side, even from traditional hardware makers such as EMC, of Hopkinton, Mass., with its AutoIS initiative; Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc., as part of its Storage Open Network Environment plan and Integrated Management Suite; and Hitachi Ltd., of Tokyo, with its HiCommand software from the Hitachi Data Systems division. The beauty of such software, although it is still primitive, is that it can manage other vendors hardware.

"You know that value shift is occurring, and the hardware prices are commoditizing," said Gary Bloom, CEO of management software provider Veritas Software Corp., of Mountain View, Calif. "Customers are looking less to their hardware supplier for guidance and direction on architectures and implementations, and theyre shifting their focus toward the role of software."

Bloom said Veritas will continue to expand its heterogeneous environment to broaden support for more platforms and storage devices and reduce the complexity of current products. He declined to elaborate before the companys user conference later this month.

Hardware-agnostic management software, which will enable users to integrate myriad storage products for greater interoperability, are now more a promise than a reality. Today, users choose from ISV tools, proprietary hardware makers tools or customized generic network management tools. The NAS/SAN convergence will mean that, by next year, those choices will include more open software tools from hardware makers as well as products coming from the growing number of startups pushing into the arena. In addition, network and switching companies are preparing launches for the space.

Just the Beginning

but the nas/san convergence will be just the first in a long line of forthcoming storage technology options IT managers will need to navigate. EMC Chief Technology Officer Jim Rothnie, for example, said his company this spring will unveil hardware running object-based storage, a move that he said goes beyond NAS or SAN.

Rothnie would not elaborate on the plans, but the common definition of object storage is to add application context to blocks so the storage device itself can control things such as data placement, automatic policy-based backup and quality of service. Applying this approach to distributed storage devices would help boost scalability, said Mike Mesnier, storage architect at Intel Corp. Labs, in Portland, Ore., and co-chairman of the Storage Networking Industry Associations Object Storage Devices Working Group. The OSD concept is a decade old, but the iSCSI movement is giving its promise new life, Mesnier said.

Houston-based Compaq, meanwhile, is focusing on storage on demand. The company will build IP networks to extend Fibre Channel connections across metropolitan area networks this year, with full-IP global storage networks in 2004, according to Mark Lewis, vice president and general manager of Compaqs Enterprise Storage Group. Such IP networks are relatively easy to manage, and companies can put the storage onto the same physical network as their data, enabling them to get rid of many of their storage-related wires and routers. However, the trade-off is performance and security.

Meanwhile, vendors such as Imperial Technology Inc., of El Segundo, Calif., are pushing solid-state disk technology, where RAM is used as permanent storage. Imperial announced SAN connectivity last month, which would allow all servers to use the fast memory.

Users may also see help managing all this in the form of software/hardware concepts. A likely scenario, said Tony Prigmore, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group Inc., in Milford, Mass., is for storage management software to take on much of the functionality of the now largely defunct storage service provider niche—but executed inside larger enterprises.

That, Prigmore said, could be useful "if were going to server blocks and files, and we want to be able to have a utility-type infrastructure." In addition, users will get help managing storage complexity as more intelligence is moved into switches, whether through software or add-on appliances, similar to the direction being taken by Brocade and McData. (See story, Page 28.)

At the Storage Networking World show in Palm Desert, Calif., this week, Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., will announce a firmware update with new iSCSI drivers and more Unix support for its SN 5420 IP storage routers, said Doug Ingraham, senior manager of product management at Ciscos Storage Technology Group.

Cisco will also announce the qualification of the router with IBMs Shark line of high-end storage devices.

The mind-boggling number of choices to present themselves over the next year promises to keep IT administrators busy, said Charlie Orndorff, CIO at Crossmark Inc., a Plano, Texas, sales and marketing company. Crossmark runs 4 terabytes of data on Compaq systems.

"One of the things were going to be looking at is a NAS front end so that we can use the existing drives," Orndorff said, adding that a year from now, it will be important to be able to allocate data among SAN, NAS and other, newer devices.

"The reason we havent looked extensively at it [yet] is the lack of compatibility" between disparate systems, Orndorff said.