Storage Goes Network

Storage appliances are busting out all over, and experts say they are part of a trend to detach storage from specific servers and make it a pooled resource on corporate networks.

Storage appliances are busting out all over, and experts say they are part of a trend to detach storage from specific servers and make it a pooled resource on corporate networks.

Most server vendors produce their own version of a storage appliance that is mounted on a rack and loaded with disk drives. In addition, some of the fastest growing start-ups — the former Cobalt Networks, now part of Sun Microsystems; Procom Technology; and Snap Appliances — produce storage appliances. So do big players, including Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Last week VA Linux Systems announced a Linux-based storage appliance, the 9450 model.

"Virtually everyone has a network-attached storage [NAS] appliance these days," said Charlotte Rancourt, director of research at IDC. Storage appliances quickly plug into networks and handle the management of files moving onto and off disks that can be accessed by a variety of corporate users. As devices attached to networks, they can provide storage to many servers, instead of just the server to which they are attached.

"Seventy percent of storage today is attached directly to the server, and 30 percent is on the network. We expect that to reverse itself over the next two years, with 67 percent on the network by 2004," Rancourt said.

Storage appliances are thriving because they can be plugged into the network and can distribute the storage close to the users seeking to access it, said Jeff Hill, senior director of product marketing at Snap Appliance. "You can reliably install a Snap server in less than 15 minutes," he said.

An NAS could take several forms, including market leader EMCs Symmetrix arrays of disks. But the storage appliance is likely to capture a major share of the transition. Storage appliances represent a simpler, cheaper alternative than sophisticated storage area networks, which are high-speed subnetworks in the data center, including products such as EMCs Symmetrix.

In a recent report, Network Appliance Database Storage Solutions, storage market researcher Input concluded that the Filer storage server from Network Appliance had a total cost of ownership that was 65 percent lower than EMCs Symmetrix. The reasons, the report said, were lower expenses for hardware, greater ease of installation and low maintenance expenses. Also, upgrades for the Data Ontap operating system used by Network Appliance can be downloaded from the Internet for free.

When the cost of downtime was added to the calculations, the total cost of ownership "is 77 percent lower for Network Appliance than for EMC," the Input report concluded.

Storage usage is increasing due to the exchange of files and e-mail over the Internet and downloads of Web pages, but information technology (IT) budgets are not keeping up, according to a recent Forrester Research report, Slaying the Storage Beast.

"Storage requirements are growing at an average 52 percent a year, yet half of our respondents budgets remain unchanged," Forrester analyst Galen Shreck noted in the report.

The rapid growth of the use of storage, combined with budget constraints, is good news to storage appliance vendors, which are frequently able to price their products below more highly engineered alternatives. The VA Linux 9450 starts at $30,000, with typical server-attached storage configurations that would cost double that amount, said Larry Augustin, president of VA Linux.

Because IT budgets are not growing as fast as the need for storage, the amount of the budget spent on servers and storage is shifting toward storage. Right now, spending is roughly equal, said Rod Mathews, manager of technology and strategy at Network Appliance. The 9-year-old firm, which pioneered the field, reported revenue growth of 91 percent in its third quarter. It recently warned investors, however, that revenue and income would be off by 20 percent to 25 percent in the fourth quarter ending April 27.

Most storage appliances come preloaded with the network protocols and software that detects what type of network they reside on, Snap Appliances Hill said. They also work with both Windows files and Unix or Linux files, as well as Apple Computer Macintosh files, making them a simple approach to file sharing in mixed environments, he said.