There are empty places at the SAN array virtualisation dinner table. EMC, HDS and Sun have taken up their positions. So too have 3Par and NetApp. IBM may have but could be in the wrong place. HP is not even at the table. For the world's leading storage vendor this is a strange position to be in. Why is this?

The Virtualisation game is shifting
The virtualisation game is changing. How? New technologies, new concepts and new players have moved onto the pitch:-

- The first wave of technology niche suppliers, such as DataCore, FalconStore and StoreAge, are now into generations two and three of their products.

- SAN Virtualisation is seen as a foundation layer for an integrated stack of storage management applications that provision storage, enable it to be monitored and managed, supply data protection services, help migration between arrays and provide reporting and SLA compliance or performance data. Where does this leave HP (now with AppIQ SAN provisioning and management) and Veritas with its Storage Foundation, both apparently missing a virtualisation foundation layer?

- The in-band and out-of band debate has morphed into an in-fabric and out-of-fabric one.

- The main out-of-fabric players are four: 3Par, NetApp, HDS, and Sun. They believe that a single or multi-vendor virtualising engine should be located at the fabric edge, adjacent to, even integrated in, a disk array controller. HDS and Sun share some but not all hardware.

- The in-fabric players are of two and a half kinds.

- First, the three main switch/director vendors: Brocade; Cisco; and McDATA, provide intelligent platforms on which in-fabric virtualising engines run or to which they communicate.
- Second, EMC's InVista runs on Brocade and Cisco fabric hardware - McDATA is coming - and uses an API to communicate with it; FAIS. Will other virtualisation engines use it?
- Second and a half, IBM's SAN Volume Controller, SVC, runs on a specific CSM hardware blade in the Cisco fabric hardware but does not use FAIS. There is also no indication that it will run on Brocade or McDATA fabric hardware. Is this limiting for IBM and its customers?

- iSCSI SANs are coming. These do not have a Fibre Channel SAN fabric. We can presume they will need array virtualisation services. Where will these be located? In intelligent Ethernet switches or in the array controllers? HDS and Sun merely have to add iSCSI interfaces to their out-of-fabric products and they are home and dry. What about the other suppliers? What use is FAIS in iSCSI SANs?

- Out-of-fabric players like 3Par have existing virtualised products with performance and management benefits. Where are they positioned with regard to FAIS, iSCSI, and multi-vendor arrays?

There are two new points of reference against which to base judgements about virtualisation products: in-fabric or out-of-fabric location; and FAIS-supporting or not for in-fabric products. There is a looming point of reference which is iSCSI SANs. Ideally customers would prefer one SAN virtualising and managing product stack, not a Fibre Channel one and a separate iSCSI one.

Does it matter?
Surely we've been here before already? The in-band/out-of-band debate has come and gone and most datacentres aren't virtualising their SAN storage. We remember the all-singing, all-dancing, always-coming storage resource management (SRM) products. They didn't arrive and suppliers such as Softek had to re-appraise their product line and focus on a specific aspect of SRM such as migration.

It's a characteristic of the storage industry that it is alert for the do-it-all product, the storage utility, the product suite that includes backup, snapshot, replication, disaster recovery, continuous data protection, disk-to-disk backup, disk-to-disk-to-tape backup, virtual tape, real tape, WORM tape, content-addressed storage, information lifecycle management, disk array virtualisation, global file system, business-aware provisioning, thin provisioning, remote boot for diskless blade servers, wide-area file services, volume management, FC SAN array fault isolation, virtual SANs, NAS, NAS gateways, FC SANs, iSCSI SANs, storage grid, and so on and so on.

It's also characteristic of our industry that technologies constantly come along to render such all-embracing visions irrelevant or, rather, impossible. That's what crucified the SRM vendors. They couldn't keep up the rate of product development needed to create mature and reliable product and feature sets and keep up with the dizzying pace of storage technology developments.

So shouldn't we just sit back and wait and let the vendors sort it out? That's one strategy. Another is to try and perceive where the storage industry is going and position our datacentres to take maximum advantage of it with the minimal constraints on future direction.

If the world is changing to fabric-based virtualisation and storage management, and your datacentres have out-of-fabric products then you are cut-off from the mainstream. It's not so much about which product you must buy now, but how you should position datacentre strategy for the future. If iSCSI is going to be worth having and you have or need a SAN array virtualisation strategy how will iSCSI fit in?

If it doesn't then you are going to be building an iSCSI island adjacent to your SAN island.

If FAIS enables you to have choice in fabric switch and director supplier on the one hand, and choice in storage virtualising and managing supplier on the other, won't your datacentre future be limited if you don't support it?

Is virtualisation like RAID?
Vendors and analysts, keen to keep virtualisation to the fore for a somewhat jaded audience, are saying that ten years ago there was much debate about RAID by the industry. Customers were initially suspicious, then cautious, and now RAID is everywhere. RAID is based on drive virtualisation inside an array of disks. So the moral is that virtualisation will move out of the drive array. it will improve disk utilisation; it will be across heterogeneous arrays; and customers will buy it because it simplifies storage management and radically improves disk utilisation.

IBM claims to have 1,300 customers for its SAN Volume Controller. Cisco was its proclaimed 'landmark' 1,000th customer. Suppliers like StoreAge keep raking up sales. The latest one is the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) which is using StoreAge's Storage Virtualisation Manager (SVM) to look after 40TB of disk storage. Why did the MTA go for a SAN virtualisation strategy? It was to avoid vendor lock-in and associated costs.

Vincent Tee, MTA's Director of IT at MTA, said MTA had recently completed a 2-year plan to upgrade its data storage facilities: “We had a SAN installed for years, but when we needed to expand, to provide additional services such as snapshot and multiple data copies, we found that we were tied to the platform vendor we already had installed.” The only means of gaining new business continuity applications was to upgrade the entire installed SAN, which came at a significant cost. “We found we were tied to that solution and the license fee for upgrading to additional applications was huge.” The MTA decided to implement the StoreAge solution as a means to gain greater control over its data facility and to provide the organization with more flexibility in purchasing new storage devices in the future.

This perfectly illustrates the datacentre positioning point made above.

3Par has won a sale for its InServe Storage Server with eHarmony, an Internet dating agency. Mark Douglas, eHarmony's VP for technology, said: "We didn't want our people managing disk drives, and with 3PAR we don't have to set up and manage RAID groups. The system is self-managing and automatically balances I/O over every drive. This lets us leverage the efficiency of RAID 5 liberally, and activities that would usually take a month to accomplish with traditional storage systems now require just a few minutes with 3PAR. That savings is huge for us."

It's about simplified storage management and virtualisation is like RAID, is just as necessary, for eHarmony.

A closer look
Techworld is going to take a closer look at virtualisation vendor products and strategies, at 3Par, DataCore, EMC, FalconStore, HDS, H-P, IBM, Intransa, NetApp, StoreAge, Sun, and Symantec, and ask how they are positioned vis-a-vis the in-fabric/out-of fabric debate, whether they support FAIS and what they think about it, and how they will embrace iSCSI SANS in their virtualisation road map. Most of all our sub-text is about how their products and virtualisation strategies will enable customers to position themselves optimally for a multi-vendor, FC plus iSCSI SAN and simplified storage management future.