The Two Faces of SAN

Arthur Cole

What do you do when there are two competing networking technologies, each of which appeals to a certain market segment that you hope to win? Adopt both of them.


That seems to be the prevailing strategy of top enterprise vendors like Dell and HP lately when it comes to storage networking. While headlines often scream about one or the other adopting Fibre Channel or iSCSI, it seems clear that both formats will be available from either vendor for the time being, at least.


Much of the talk these days centers on Dell and EquaLogic. Just as Dell as finishing up the $1.4 billion purchase of the iSCSI SAN provider, the company released the new PS5000 array that can deliver up to 192 TB to the enterprise using multiple combinations of SAS and SATA drives.


Dell speaks plainly about the need to tap into the growing iSCSI market, even while it continues to talk up its existing relationship with EMC, which brings both Fibre Channel and iSCSI to Dell platforms. But as pointed out here by InformationWeek's Terry Sweeney, the company has to answer some serious questions before it regains the market dominance it once had. There are some heavyweight entrenched interests, both in the channel and the customer base, that might not want things to change all that much.


While Dell has the resources to walk both sides of the SAN fence, third-party vendors often don't have that luxury. Enterasys Networks, for example, recently swapped support for Fibre Channel on the SAN/iQ clustering software it provides for the Dell PowerEdge 2950 in favor of iSCSI SANs from LeftHand Networks. Dan Petlon, vice president of System Quality and IT at Enterasys, said Fibre Channel wasn't nimble enough to deliver the kind of backup and recovery systems customers were looking for. With LeftHand, the company can provide a 90 TB backup network over a distance of 300 miles.


HP has been quieter about its plans, but generally tries to satisfy both camps with its lines of storage arrays. The latest StorageWorks system, the 2000 Modular Smart Array (MSA2000) offers both Fibre Channel and iSCSI disk arrays aimed at low-end customers looking to tap into server virtualization. The system can scale up to 36 TB with support for either 4 Gbps Fibre Channel or 1 Gbps iSCSI on up to 48 SAS or SATA drives.


Although most coverage pitches the fight between iSCSI and Fibre Channel as one to the death, the real battle is over which format will dominate the Ethernet. The next year or two should prove interesting as we see whether one or the other proves superior in shuttling storage traffic on top of data and voice communications. Perhaps at some point it will make sense for the major platform providers to choose sides -- but not now.

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