Time for a Smaller, Leaner SAN

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Five Data Storage Predictions for 2012

Details may vary, but there is little doubt that big changes are coming to the enterprise storage networks.

Both SAN and NAS architectures have long been the target of complaints, considering that their size and complexity are often a key drive in enterprise capital and operational budgets. When those budgets get crunched, as they are in these lean economic times, developers become more creative at streamlining solutions. These days, the stakes are particularly high as a raft of startups are calling for the traditional storage network to be scrapped altogether in favor of modular, Flash-based storage architectures built around the server interconnect.

Few enterprises are willing to go that far, however, so it falls to the traditional network developers to simplify the more unwieldy aspects of legacy storage infrastructure. HP and 3PAR, for example, are showing off the benefits of the Virtual Connect FlexFabric by stripping out much of the switches, directors and routers that usually comprise Ethernet, Fibre Channel and/or iSCSI environments. The pair's demo consists of a 16-server BladeSystem enclosure tied to a 3PAR array using only two Fibre Channel cables. As currently configured, the FlexFabric device can support up to four FC links that can wire up to four separate arrays.

Indeed, while it seemed for a while that Fibre Channel was destined to become the dinosaur of the data center, recent trends indicate otherwise. The Dell'Oro Group reports Fibre Channel sales hit a record $476 million in the first quarter, driven largely by the rising popularity of integrated SAN/NAS architectures and the need to manage unstructured data.

And even though Fibre Channel in particular might not be able to compete for Flash-based, modular infrastructure, it is looking increasingly promising for long-haul, distributed applications. Panduit Corp. recently showed a 1 km 16 Gpbs setup using its Signature Core multimode fiber technology. The demo at AMC World last month linked QLogic's FlexSuite HBAs to a SANBlaze VirtuaLUN target emulator, a configuration the company says will support increasingly complex service-oriented and cloud architectures. Multimode fiber technology enables distributed network fabrics at significantly less cost than single mode systems.

At the same time, however, rival technologies are still poised to cut in on Fibre Channel's action. InfiniBand, for one, still has adherents like Xsigo Systems, which has built its Fabric Director system around InfiniBand to enable 56 Gbps server-to-server connectivity. The system is part of the Data Center Fabric portfolio, which seeks to cut down on the need for FC, iSCSI and Ethernet devices while simultaneously bringing network management under a single interface. The package recently extended support to Intel "Romley" servers, as well as the new AMD Opteron 6200 series.

It seems then that enterprises looking to flatten out their network infrastructures have a bit of research to do. Is it best to double down on the Fibre Channel and Ethernet infrastructure already in place, or is now the time to try out new approaches that may prove more adept at fulfilling the needs of mobile and cloud users?

One thing is certain: The old SAN must roll with the changes as the rest of the industry pursues more streamlined, dynamic infrastructure.

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