Virtual(ization) reality

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On the Website, "virtualization" was second only to "iSCSI" as the word most frequently typed into our search engine over a recent period (see October 2001, p. 6). And virtualization is coming close to being the most frequently discussed topic in our meetings with vendors.

But few of you are using storage virtualization (unless you include volume managers and LUN mapping in the definition). There are a number of reasons for this, topped by the fact that most of you still don't have production storage area networks (SANs), in which case you probably don't need virtualization-at least not virtualization appliances.

But as SAN adoption picks up, so will interest in virtualization (although it's debatable which is the chicken and which is the egg).

This month, we decided to get the views of third-party storage integrators (see cover story). Most of them report that many end users don't understand what virtualization is.

Don't worry: Many of the vendors don't understand it, either. But if you're curious about what virtualization really is, don't hold your breath for a silver bullet definition: It's not forthcoming and may not be possible. Veritas' Volume Manager qualifies as a virtualization tool, but it's a different animal than FalconStor's IPStor.

The best way to understand virtualization is to get a demo. It all becomes clear in 30 minutes, and it is very cool technology.

But virtualization brings up a number of interesting issues. First, it is not in the financial interests of the disk-array market share leaders (because it "equalizes" or "commoditizes" the disk subsystems). Second, if the big guys aren't onboard, widespread end-user adoption is unlikely.

The acquisition of virtualization vendor StorageApps by Hewlett-Packard may change that because HP's a big vendor with a shipping product. But it's questionable whether the big players-HP included-would be interested in standards for virtualization, which would further level the playing field.

Lack of standards

There are no standards for virtualization, and none seem forthcoming. For an interesting take on this issue, read Dan Tanner's article in this issue (see "Storage virtualization needs standards," p. 58). I won't try to summarize Dan's (deceptively simple) comments: Just read his call to arms.

Dan discusses the possible role that EMC might play in virtualization standards. I say keep your eye on Brocade-another vendor not yet associated with virtualization. To many of the integrators with whom I recently spoke, it would make a lot more sense to put virtualization in a device that's already functioning as the brains of the SAN, as opposed to introducing yet another appliance into what is complex enough.

Brocade will probably not try to create a standard for virtualization; rather, it will enable the hosting of a variety of virtualization techniques on its switches, leaving it up to its OEM buddies to layer in whatever virtualization code they desire. (Of course, aggrandizing Brocade's role in this assumes that they retain their leadership in the switch market, which may be debatable as the dawn of iSCSI nears, but that's another matter.)

In any case, if a standard for virtualization is going to come, it's going to have to come from some organization such as the Storage Networking Industry Association. And we'll hear from them in an issue or two. Stay tuned.

Dave Simpson, Editor-in-Chief

This article was originally published on November 01, 2001