For Left Hand Networks direct-attach storage (DAS) is absolutely essential. Without DAS Left Hand's SANs (storage area networks) wouldn't exist. Like Dataupia Left Hand takes self-contained appliances, consisting of an industry server and its DAS, and combines them with its own proprietary software, SAN/iQ, to make an appliance-based modular SAN. It's easy to manage, has great business continuity and data protection features and its performance and affordability compared to Fibre Channel-based SANS is simply stunning.

We've not heard much of Left Hand in Europe because the company has been closely focused on the USA where 95 percent of its sales come from. This is about to change. It has appointed Doug Rich, ex-Veritas, as a European VP and has very good traction in the USA on which to build. John Fanelli, Left Hand's VP responsible for product and channel marketing and product management, said: " At the end of 2006 we had 2,000 customers and 6,000 systems installed. At the end of 2005 we had 1,000 customers and 3,000 systems installed. In 2006 we did the same business that we did from 2001 to the end of 2005."

That's impressive; a 100 percent growth rate in customer numbers and installed systems in twelve months.

Left Hand was founded in 1999 and shipped its first system in 2001. It built SANs using Ethernet as the transport, IP SANs, but with a proprietary protocol. When iSCSI arrived in 2003 it switched over to what has become the standard IP SAN protocol. The USA was its pretty near total focus until last year when it expanded into Canada, where it now has 20 to 30 value-added resellers (VARs). This year it is adding Europe to its geography. As well as Doug Rich, It already has two full-time sales people in Europe and is looking to recruit 8 to 10 more people.

Left Hand competes with EqualLogic, it says, for customers in the small and medium business (SMB) area, and with NetApp and EMC for customers in small to mid-tier enterprises. EqualLogic has been in Europe for about three and a half years and is obviously ahead of Left Hand in Europe in terms of customer numbers and installed systems. It is also ahead at a world-wide level where EqualLogic has 2,300 customers.

Fanelli has spent time at Sun and talks of 'the storage is the network' and is keen on the idea of scale-out, adding more independent but co-ordinated resources to a computing entity to grow its capabilities. This is opposed to scale-up where resources are added internally to a computing entity. He sees four waves of scale out:-

1. Web servers with Apache,
2. App servers,
3. Database servers with Oracle/Linux and SQL Server,
4. Storage servers with Left Hand and also with Microsoft's WUDDS.

He is pretty keen on Left Hand's scaling capabilities: "We're a 100 percent software company and we deliver a whole system that scales. It's (effectively) unlimited in that we've built a 30-node cluster in our labs; that's a 100TB SAN. We start small and grow big. We scale capacity and we scale performance at the same time."

A Left Hand SAN is built from industry standard X86 server building blocks; certain models of either HP ProLiant or IBM System X servers with DAS and a PCI Express bus. Its own IP is the SANi/Q software which clusters these servers together. He describes SAN/iQ as a 'distributed, true clustered architecture' which aggregates and manages the server/DAS building blocks. Each aggregated server adds processing capacity, storage capacity and network bandwidth to the SAN.

Fanelli paints a picture of Left Hand piggy-backing on HP and IBM innovations in the server area, which means Left Hand doesn't have to do that, and also that customers get more cost-effective and greener server/DAS components in their Left Hand SANs. For example, Fanelli said: "We can go to 10gigE via a PCI Express card. Our competitors have NICs (Ethernet network interface cards) on motherboards and so an upgrade to 10GbitE involves a whole new NIC/motherboard."

Left Hand wants to make it easier to its storage SAN gear and the software license is pretty inclusive. Fanelli said: "We do synchronous and asynchronous replication; we do snapshots; we do thin provisioning and it's all-inclusive. It costs $28,000 for a 6TB SAN. NetApp charges $40,000 for synchronous replication without the SAN."

SAN/iQ manages the cluster component servers as distributed peers. Storage can be tiered. You can have Fibre Channel, serial-attached SCSI (SAS) or serial ATA (SATA) drives i the SAN or any mix of these three types of disk. The servers don't have to be identical, Fanelli said: "We have customers running several generations of server hardware. Our architecture allows customers to grow by adding the highest-capacity building block or the highest-performing box."

Protection possibilities are very good. Each server/DAS building block has its own RAID protecting against a drive failure. But Left Hand employs so-called Network RAID in which each building block is RAID-protected by having its data spread across the other building blocks. This protects against an entire server/DAS module failure. These network RAID-protected servers can be in the same rack, the same building or remote ones. It s quit a flexible scheme.

It seems that Left Hand Networks is second to EqualLogic in the new entrant IP SAN space in terms of customers and systems installed. NetApp is probably the leading IP SAN vendor bt this was achieved by adding IP SAN capability to its popular filers, meaning customers got the IP SAN capability whether they wanted it or not.

Customers in Europe face the prospect of two strong and cost-efective competitors to NetApp and EMC for IP SANs once Left Hand's European infrastructure is in place and operating. With it and EqualLogic putting IP SAN price pressure on both of the big players we might expect their prices to come down. A whole new storage front is opening up between Fibre Channel SANs on the one hand and NAS on the other.

It is divided into the IP SAN players - such as Equal Logic and Left Hand - and the general/utility storage vendors such as 3PAR and Pillar. The competition for your storage budget spend is going to become a lot more intense.