Dell is planning to make storage-attached networks (SANs) mainstream with the release of its AX100, aimed at remote departments, workgroups and enterprises smaller than the top tier.

Made up of integrated components from EMC, QLogic and Brocade, the resulting SAN will provide fast access to consolidated data storage, with each connected server having access to its own unique part of the SAN's disk storage. It will also cost less than £6,000. Dell CEO Kevin Rollins said that the AX100 is of interest to, "more than one third of Dell's addressable market".

Fibre Channel SANs have traditionally been expensive to buy and operate, requiring expensive adaptors and a dedicated Fibre Channel network and fabric switches. However, the AX100 will scale from 480GB to 3TB and is easily set up with Wizard-based tools. It can be configured in just four steps, Dell boasts. "Dell is bringing enterprise-class capability to a low-cost entry-level SAN solution, while providing an ease of management and configuration that should alleviate any doubt that FC SANs can be in SMB/SME environments."

Such an approach counters the view that Fibre Channel SANs are expensive, hard to implement, configure and use. EMC head Joe Tucci said: "What we're providing is a SAN environment for the price of what used to be direct-attached." Dell CEO Kevin Rollins said that they developed the product because customers wanted to implement, "a SAN that is both low cost and easy to use. Customers can support it themselves. Customers that are not IT professionals can manage it ongoing."

The Dell/EMCC AX100 includes dual controllers and mirrored cache to provide higher availability. It comes in a 2U rack unit with up to 12 SATA drives and the bundle includes a Brocade 8-port Silkworm 3250 fabric switch (dual 2Gbit/s ports), QLogic QLA 200 HBAs and management software for provisioning, automated failover and snap-shot capability. Supported servers include Windows, Linux and NetWare. There is a limit of two switches in the integrated bundle, meaning the SAN can scale to 6TB with two AX100s.

An alternative approach to Fibre Channel SANs, called iSCSI, uses Ethernet network infrastructure and IP protocol to provide a less expensive equivalent. It has been assumed that iSCSI SANs, such as those from Intransa, will appeal to small and medium enterprises on the one hand, and extend access to enterprise Fibre Channel SANs on the other. This would be by using Ethernet interface cards instead of the more expensive Fibre Channel HBAs to add access to servers.

The AX100 threatens to derail the iSCSI SAN train before it has properly left the station. However Dell/EMC may also bring out an iSCSI version. Tucci said: "I think they're both going to have their place. We have iSCSI bridging now and iSCSI native in the months coming up." Rollins hinted that: "We'll do an iSCSI SAN in the not too distant future." EMC is also manufacturing and supplying AX100 arrays to its other partners such as Fujitsu Siemens Computer. The arrays are RAID 5-ready.

Concerning SATA drives, typically used for secondary or nearline storage, Tucci said: "The quality of ATA drives has moved up. SATA drives spin at 7500rpm which is pretty good performance. This is going to be primary storage for this class of the market."

The Dell/EMC AX100 is available as a direct-attached (SAN ready) configuration for £3,499 and in a SAN configuration for £5,899. The low prices put immediate pressure on competitors IBM and HP to respond with equivalent products.

Dell will also supply backup and replication software from EMC's Legato division; Networker Dell Edition and RepliStor Dell Edition respectively. Networker Dell Edition costs £,2864 and is available now. RepliStor Dell Edition will be available later this year. These products are available from Dell across both the AX and CX array product range.

Expect more AX products soon.