Gonna party with SAN?

When someone raises the subject of storage area networks (SAN), I can't help thinking: "What if they held a party and nobody came?"

When someone raises the subject of storage area networks (SAN), I can’t help thinking: “What if they held a party and nobody came?”

It’s an old saw but it came to mind again last week when Hewlett-Packard had a team in town from the US to talk to their customers about the virtues of SAN and, of course, how HP is leading the charge.

All the major vendors have SAN offerings and there seems little doubt it’s eventually going to become very important. The question is when.

An IDC survey late last year of New Zealand IT managers was revealing for how little they know or seem to care about SAN.

More than 47% had no one in their organisation familiar with or aware of SAN technology. Most respondents indicated they had a passing knowledge but it was not extensive. There was some confusion as to what a SAN strategy involved.

Of the 120 respondents, 96 had not considered what benefits a SAN strategy could bring to their organisation.

Storage is becoming increasingly important for a number of reasons. IDC estimates that by next year, storage will make up half of IT spending, and by 2003, 75%. In other words, business will cease to be server-centric and become data-centric.

As organisations move away from paper, they still have to bear in mind their legal obligations. With, say, the Inland Revenue Department, that means keeping seven years of data. It also means having a very robust offline archive.

And as companies move to the .com model, data management becomes a central issue for the well-being of the organisation.

That’s the strength of SAN, which provides a consistent centralised interface for easier and cheaper management. Essentially, a SAN is a high-availability, high-performance dedicated storage network that connects servers and storage in a scalable architecture. It’s a network behind the network.

HP’s David Lawrence, California-based NT fibre channel product manager, reckons there’s a compelling cost-benefit argument.

“Today’s direct-attach disks compound costs,” he says. “One of the main reasons for SAN is a single control point.”

He quotes a US industry statistic of nine servers per person in an IT department. “We can get that to 25 servers per person because of centralisation of management.”

Lawrence seemed a bit gob-smacked that a New Zealand customer he had just visited had three people managing 250 servers. That seemed to be a special case, he thought.

Not that a full-blown SAN solution is available yet — rather, point to point solutions. Interoperability is an issue, the major one, says Lawrence, where some of the current operating systems don’t recognise SAN storage.

There’s no management standard to limit a server’s operating system to a defined part of the SAN. For example, Windows NT and Solaris servers view any storage space they see in a SAN as entirely theirs and end up over-riding each other’s information.

A recent study by US-based Giga Group highlights the concerns. One consultant quoted says he feels some frustration regarding SAN techno- logy. Vendors are offering a few pieces of the technology puzzle, but there’s no guarantee they will function together, he says. “I want to find a real SAN that works with existing applications such as Novell NetWare 4. Companies claim they can do it, but it’s not usable. I want an off-the-shelf product, not one that only works in a lab.”

Storage vendors need to come up with a complete product for SAN. According to IDC, the storage market will be worth $US34.3 billion in revenue this year, with the majority of sales coming from SAN-ready systems.

Analysts interviewed by Giga say serverless backups will be a key component of SAN success. Currently, the server manages the backup from disks to a tape drive.

Possibly the lack of knowledge about SAN in New Zealand has to do with IT managers making do with limited resourcing, restricted bud- gets because of Y2K and major legacy systems. It’s easier to throw more storage at a problem because the cost of storage has become increasingly cheaper.

Sooner or later space limitations and management costs will curtail that option. It’s time for them to at least familiarise themselves with a SAN strategy and map out the potential benefits while the SAN vendors sort out their side of the equation.

Randal Jackson is a reporter on Computerworld New Zealand. You can respond to his column by mail and for publication copy to cw_letters @idg.co.nz.

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