Sun tackles storage virtualization

By Lisa Coleman

Last month, Sun began shipping its N1 Data Platform, which is based on hardware and virtualization software that it acquired from Pirus Networks last year. The platform provides storage pooling and consolidation by allowing users to allocate storage resources on demand.

The platform, which supports file-level or block-level I/O, will eventually support protocols such as IP and iSCSI but is currently limited to Fibre Channel. Integrated software includes virtualization services such as storage pooling, partitioning, concatenation, striping virtual volumes, multiple copy-on-write snapshots, and other volume management services.

"It's an enabling technology that will allow them to tie into other vendors' equipment," says Mike Karp, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Management Associates consulting firm.

The N1 Data Platform also allows Sun to go beyond its focus on Solaris in storage environments. "This is a route to co-existence with other operating systems and other vendors' products," says Karp.

The hardware-software combo allows users to create a single logical pool out of heterogeneous storage systems, potentially making it easier to manage storage devices on a storage area network (SAN).

"A processor dedicated to every port in the box guarantees high performance, and it allows us to do provisioning and virtualization of storage without impacting throughput," claims James Staten, director of strategy for Sun's Network Storage Products Group.

The N1 Data Platform supports all of Sun's Fibre Channel arrays and a number of other vendors' arrays, although Sun declined to list them.

Available in 16-port and 32-port versions, the platform is priced from $112,600, including integrated virtualization software, point-in-time copy software, and secure domain capability.

Sun's N1 platform and virtualization software enables users to create a single logical pool out of heterogeneous storage systems.
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Sun expects the platform to compete primarily with virtualization products from vendors such as DataCore Software, FalconStor, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

Currently, there are two different approaches for virtualization in the data path, according to Randy Kerns, an analyst with The Evaluator Group consulting firm. DataCore and FalconStor, for example, use target mode emulation. Sun uses an approach called "frame cracking," where an individual Fibre Channel frame is opened, attributes are changed, and the frame is sent out again. The software determines whether traffic moves forward or is re-routed for virtualization services.

"It's similar to what Brocade has with the Rhapsody technology," explains Kerns.

Brocade acquired Rhapsody Networks earlier this year, gaining a multi-protocol switch and advanced ASIC technology as well as software and APIs that will enable its OEMs and third parties to write storage applications for the switching platforms.

However, the jury is still out on which type of virtualization approach is best, says Kerns.

"One of the negative arguments about frame cracking is that people want to use the platforms as complete fabric switches," says Kerns. "Sun isn't claiming that this is a complete fabric switch. It's an appliance to control the domain behind it. I think they have a very realistic perspective about the way to use it," he says.

Midrange arrays

Sun also introduced midrange disk arrays that will replace the StorEdge T3 and 3900 arrays. The 6120 is a Fibre Channel RAID subsystem that starts with 14 36GB drives (504GB total capacity). Linking six cabinets provides more than 3TB. The 6320 starts with 14 73GB drives (about 1TB) and scales to 45TB.

In an attempt to differentiate itself from other midrange array vendors, Sun is bundling SAN management software with its arrays. The software includes LUN management, snapshot and replication services, path fail-over, and policy-based configuration.

The 6120 and 6320 are priced from $24,300 and $67,600, respectively, including software.

Analysts agree that the bundled software could be a differentiator. "Most of the vendors that sell mid-tier arrays don't bundle software; you have to buy it separately," notes Kerns. "Sun's approach will give IT managers leverage because they have more choices."

Separately, Sun announced a new version of its StorEdge Enterprise Storage Manager (ESM) software for Sun OpenSAN environments. ESM 1.2 is priced at $15,000. Also, StorEdge Backup Software version 7.0 is now available for $2,600.

This article was originally published on May 01, 2003