Make than CONNECTION — the new TREND in storage technology

make than CONNECTION — the new TREND in storage technology

David Doering

i you want to find out which way the wind is blowing in the network storage world, you go to Comdex, and the major trend for storage technology at Comdex last November was connections. Yes, DVD is significant. Yes, there are new tools for using optical storage and new operating systems such as Linux. But the most significant new developments relate to the ways devices are connected together. A year ago, the overwhelming standard was host-attached. Now, the attachment comes in three forms: host-attached, network-attached, and storage area networks.

Traditional host-attached interfaces with SCSI and ATAPI saw the latter take one more step toward market dominance. Most ATAPI devices at the show performed within 20 percent of SCSI-level speed which, according to the Doering Rule of IT Investment, is too close to make any difference to 80 percent of the buyers. Tower and jukebox vendors have already followed suit, with all but one featuring all-ATAPI lines.

Network-attached storage (NAS) is now accepted as a viable connection–even at the high end. The debut of NAS from well-known players like Network Appliance, nStor, Clariion, and others validates the trend started in 1992 on the Wintel platform. The big change now is from read-only to read/write systems with RAID NAS, various caching servers, and network CD-R duplicators.

Storage area network (SAN) products were liberally sprinkled about at Comdex. Most of them, however, were actually SAN-ready devices equipped with a Fibre Channel interface (which is the preferred interface for SANs), rather than SAN tools themselves. There’s no question that SANs are on their way as means of creating storage subsystems, but where are the common tools?

SAN technology promises to be a Super SCSI for host-attached systems, and a Super NAS when the network uses Fibre Channel. It is much more scalable than SCSI, is OS-independent, and thus expands access to data. What it needs is a defined standard for the gateway to the SAN. Windows NTT lacks any native support for the technology, and the third-party solutions all represent proprietary approaches. What this strategy lacks today is a NetWare-equivalent–a single, acknowledged gateway or access point to the SAN that is hardware-independent. It should also be network operating system-independent, to give SANs the virtues of NAS.

Rising star Linux and back-in-play NetWare demand consideration along with UNIX and NT. Leveraging existing IS investment would give potential SAN users another reason to consider it, rather than view it as a replacement for that technology.

(I have an ulterior motive: if SANs prove viable and proliferate, they can readily support 120mm optical drives without penalizing users for optical’s slower speeds in recording. It can do this both by caching for data as well as real-time access so only changes in data need to be sent to the recorder.)

Although there are a variety of proposed gateways, none yet has gained that crucial distinction of being accepted by the majority of vendors. Until buyers or vendors define such a standard, SANs will play at fewer houses. Overall, Comdex ’98 marked a major turning point in the way we connect storage to networks.

after the buzz is gone

My disappointments with Comdex are two-fold: first, we in storage remain too feature-oriented and not benefits-oriented enough. Users hear about UDF, CD-RW, reflectivity and IPX versus IP support, but are confused about what these technologies mean to them. MIS seems too willing to remain with tape, consumers with CD-ROM, and resellers with white-box solutions because all three demographics groupings are confused as to which, if any, of the new offerings make a difference to them.

This is not because we don’t have something great to offer them in CD and DVD tools and hardware; it’s because we don’t tell them how it can work for them. The same is true of SAN technology. Most vendors are rushing out specs for Fibre Channel support or Clustering, or some other current buzz word.

More buzz words won’t help. What would be a clear mission: SAN provides real-time data protection today. SAN provides faster access at less cost than ever by combining the strengths of networks with contemporary storage devices.

shades of gray

My second disappointment is that the future is still gray. (Well, OK–beige.) We are still mired in off-white coloring for computer equipment. Whether you call it “beige,” “bone,” or, as one vendor calls it, “linen”–it is still boring. I look around my test lab and I can’t tell one vendor’s system from another’s–I have to look at the nameplate. Oh, for a Cobalt Microserver with its neon faceplate!

Is anyone else bothered by this? Isn’t there one aftermarket company that could do something about it? I mean, isn’t the fact that it’s not gray one of the most appealing features of the Apple iMac? I believe there is a place for a leather-padded, dark oak machine in the legal market, a blue and white schema in the health services industry, and a forest green and rosewood design in the financial sector.

Hey, aren’t we as an industry ready to move beyond Henry Ford’s “any color so long as it’s black” approach?

THE NETWORK OBSERVER columnist David Doering [dave@techvoice.com], an EMedia Professional contributing editor, is also senior analyst with TechVoice Inc., an Orem, Utah-based consultancy.

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