By Dave Simpson
Most storage start-ups prefer to graze in pastures ignored by the larger vendors, but a handful of switch start-ups are going right to the top of the food chain with director-class switches. Often, the switches have very high port counts, support for multiple protocols (as opposed to just Fibre Channel), and the ability to host applications in the switch (e.g., fabric-based applications).
Focusing on fabric-based application hosting, MaXXan Systems was one of the first start-ups to enter this market (see "MaXXan enters storage switch market," InfoStor, March 2003, p. 10). And at last month's Storage Networking World conference and this month's Storage World Conference, Sanera Systems entered the market with a 256-port director (all ports are non-blocking) that features "dynamic partitioning." The director went into beta this month.
Although analysts applaud the new switches from a technology standpoint, they note the obvious hurdle for these start-ups: It will be difficult to wrest control of the high-end storage area network (SAN) market from entrenched vendors such as Brocade, McData, Inrange (which is being acquired by CNT), and Cisco, which entered the SAN switch market earlier this year and has already signed up major OEMs such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM.
Sanera is targeting OEMs (as opposed to direct sales to end users) with its DS10000 switch, but at press time the company had not announced any OEM agreements. (CNT was rumored to be an OEM candidate, but its decision to acquire Inrange is expected to derail the Sanera OEM deal.)
In addition to competing with entrenched players, start-ups such as Sanera will have to compete with other start-ups that are readying SAN switches, such as Maranti Networks and Sandial Systems.
And the market may not be big enough for everybody. For example, Sanera is targeting Fortune 500 companies with SANs that have—or will have—more than 500 ports. Patrick Harr, vice president of marketing and business development at Sanera, admits that only about a third of the Fortune 500 companies fit the bill. Most of those companies have already invested heavily in equipment from vendors such as McData and Brocade or are eying Cisco's switches and management software.
So far, Sanera has named two beta customers: Goldman Sachs and E*Trade.
Nevertheless, from a technology standpoint Sanera has a number of features that may draw attention from companies with very large SANs. For example, 256 non-blocking ports per director is an industry high. Other vendors claim 256 ports, but they're typically not all non-blocking ports and/or the port count is achieved by linking multiple directors. Sanera's DS10000 can be configured with up to 256 2Gbps ports or up to 64 10Gbps ports. The directors can be connected via 10Gbps inter-switch links (ISLs).
The DS10000 supports a variety of protocols, including Fibre Channel, FICON, Gigabit Ethernet, and iSCSI.
Another key feature of the DS10000 is "dynamic partitioning," a mainframe concept that allows administrators to consolidate SANs into a single director while maintaining the autonomy and security of independent SANs. The director can be partitioned by, for example, application, department, or protocol. This is in contrast to zoning (which is supported by all switch vendors) and will also compete directly with technologies such as Cisco's Virtual SAN (VSAN), which is analogous to Virtual LANs (VLANs).
Finally, Sanera touts the ability to run embedded storage applications in the switch (e.g., virtualization, remote copy, mirroring, backup, etc.), a potential trend that Brocade and Cisco are also pursuing. Sanera is making its APIs available to a number of software vendors. The first to sign on was Fujitsu Softek. Incipient—focused on fabric-based applications—is also expected to port its applications to the DS10000.