Jack McDonnell is one of the fathers of storage networking - he is the "McD" in McData, a company he founded in his own home 21 years ago. Initially a data networking company, McData moved into storage 11 years ago when it began developing network switches, which it called directors, to work with IBM's Fibre-based ESCON technology.

The company was bought by EMC in 1995 and began developing Fibre Channel directors for EMC, before being spun off five years later via an IPO. ""By 1999, we had a dominant share at the high end," says McDonnell.

"We saw Fibre Channel as an enabling technology, because it lets you treat all data in the organisation equally. That needed a foundation, so we developed the highest capacity switches around, then we expanded down from the top and now we're building networks of SANs with hundreds or thousands of devices."

McDonnell handed over the CEO's job to John Kelley last year, but still holds the position of company chairman and takes a leading role in setting McData's product and technology directions.

"Customers ask 'What's the next stage?' Clearly it is to add intelligence and add distance," he says. "Our customers derive value from their data, and much of it has been hidden away, but with SANs we have the unique ability to touch that data directly. So customers with large SANs will manage centrally while doing functions at the edge that don't need to touch the central servers."

He adds that, with the cost of storage management being an increasing problem, McData is one of many companies working on ways of making SANs cheaper to run. "We need physical simplicity and automation," he says. "Manage your storage as a greater entity and abstract the complexity - the information is the management element."

The answer here is virtualisation, though McDonnell warns that the term can be twisted to mean almost anything. "Fabric virtualisation might mean you can treat SAN components logically or even better make them disappear," he says. "Our job is to deploy intelligence so the user doesn't have to bother with LUN maps, zones and so on."

The challenge, McDonnell says, is to try to match development with user acceptance. "It's going to take us five years to earn the operations manager's trust in our tools," he predicts.

For example, McData has been discussing SAN virtualisation with partners and suppliers for two years, but he believes widespread commercial acceptance is still 12 to 18 months away, by which time McData will be shipping programmable intelligent switches, driven by an external control engine.

Instead of the appliance approach favoured by the likes of DataCore, FalconStor and IBM, which requires all data to be processed by a server in the data path, the McData version will do storage virtualisation within the switch itself. The control engine will load mapping tables into the switch, for example to mirror or migrate data, as well as handling errors and exceptions. . The ultimate goal of all this is to be able to deploy storage anywhere, and rely on the intelligence in the network to make sure that you can access your information from anywhere else with sufficient performance, so you do not care where it is.

"For example," says McDonnell, "the intelligence in the network has to be powerful enough to realise that if a US user accesses storage in Shanghai, it moves that information closer.

"The customer isn't ready for that yet, but we have to develop it for when they are. I like to look out 10 years ahead, but you can't deploy 10-year-ahead technology - we can only deliver technology at a rate the market will accept, so it's an interesting balancing act."