SANs (storage area networks) have traditionally been regarded as tier one solutions. Their complexity and six-figure to seven-figure costs have rendered them seemingly out of reach for many small- to midmarket companies. However, according to one group of storage vendors, not only can small- to midmarket companies manage a SAN, but they can also afford to. To prove the point, these vendors partnered to build E-Z-SAN, a simplified SAN solution for smaller companies. Their primary goal was to eliminate the kinds of multivendor interoperability issues that can drive SAN administration and support costs skyward. According to Duran Alabi, director of marketing for JMR (Chatsworth, CA), which provides the enclosure that houses E-Z-SAN, vendor interoperability is the main reason (other than cost) companies hesitate to deploy SANs. "Integrators and system administrators have to deal with proprietary software provided by various hardware vendors, whose systems aren't always open," Alabi explains. "They also have to deal with all of those vendors to get support for the various components of a SAN. Unfortunately, those vendors may not be working to make their products compatible with each other."
To create a compatible multivendor SAN offering, JMR recruited the following hardware vendors: Hitachi America, Ltd., Computer Division (Brisbane, CA) for disk drives, JNI Corp. (San Diego) for HBAs (host bus adapters), Vixel Corp. (Bothell, WA) for fabric switches, and Chaparral Network Storage, Inc. (Longmont, CO) and Silicon Image, CMD Storage Systems (Sunnyvale, CA) for RAID controllers. In addition, E-Z-SAN customers can select software from BakBone Software Inc. (San Diego), FalconStor Software, Inc. (Melville, NY), OTG Software, Inc. (Rockville, MD), and Sanbolic, Inc. (Watertown, MA).
The process of building E-Z-SAN underscored the group's guiding premise that, when it comes to deploying a SAN, interoperability issues can tax a company's budget and patience. "We put our components together in a lab, and the SAN initially didn't work. It took us nine months of debugging to get it to the point where now you can turn it on and it's ready to go," Alabi admits. "We experienced the same kind of scenario a customer faces in trying to build a SAN with various vendors' products." Steve Garceau, marketing manager for Silicon Image, CMD Storage Systems, wasn't surprised, especially since SANs rely on Fibre Channel rather than SCSI (small computer system interface) as their primary connectivity protocol. "When we first got into Fibre Channel about three years ago, we saw a lot more interoperability issues than we did with SCSI," Garceau admits. "Issues related to signal integrity and to software and firmware compatibility, for example, can create a lot of headaches."
Put Storage Management Software To Work
SANs have been touted for their ability to facilitate centralized storage management and, thus, to maximize storage utilization. Says Garceau, "It's much easier to consolidate storage in a SAN compared to keeping it in direct attached units spread out across the enterprise." However, consolidating storage isn't simply a matter of stringing together boxes and drives. As Alabi puts it, "The challenge in deploying a SAN is not capability or capacity. It's how you manage your assets."
Since asset management is primarily a function of software, hardware and SAN interfaces must do their job and get out of software's way. Alabi points to the Fibre Channel switch and the HBA as keys to smooth deployment. "If they can interoperate, they can respond to the calls and commands of the software management tools," he says.
Clear A Path For Backup And File Sharing
The E-Z-SAN vendors are convinced that, when a SAN is freed from interoperability problems, it brings relief to a company's entire network infrastructure. By taking storage devices off the LAN, a SAN clears the way for clog-free data retrieval. "SANs are a great way to move block data nearline or offline so that backup windows can be decreased," Garceau says. "A well-integrated SAN also ensures redundant data paths, so that there isn't a single point of failure. This is particularly valuable in departmental or workgroup environments where multiple users must access the same data."
Chris Hurley, VP of sales and marketing for Sanbolic, Inc., agrees that SANs can give users in collaborative workgroups streamlined data access. His company's software offers E-Z-SAN customers volume-sharing tools that eliminate common LAN-based problems such as duplicate or outdated data. "Instead of having each user work on a project and transfer it across the LAN to the next user, we make all of the data on all of the drives visible to all authorized users. When one person is done writing to the volume, the next person can write to the same volume. Since the data stays on the SAN and doesn't have to be transferred across an Ethernet network, companies can take greater advantage of their storage resources because users aren't duplicating files."
Perhaps the most important benefit of a pretested, integrated SAN solution like E-Z-SAN is the relief it brings, not just to the network and storage infrastructure, but also to system administrators. That should make it particularly attractive to budget-conscious smaller companies. "Companies that don't have in-house SAN expertise can buy a SAN that meets their requirements, but they don't have to know a lot about the complexities of what each component does," Hurley says. Or, as Garceau puts it, "Customers want SANs to solve problems, not create them. If having a bunch of piece parts requires calling several vendors to make the parts work together, that's not a good thing."