OPINION: What happened to network-based intelligence?

By Steve Duplessie

—In September 2004, the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) published a report entitled The Future of Network-Based Storage Intelligence (www.enterprisestrategygroup.com). Since then, not much has happened in this market. We said that moving storage services from servers and disk arrays into the network would be one of the most important architecture shifts since the advent of block-based SANs. That statement is still true, so why isn't it commonplace yet?

The technical rationale for fabric-based intelligence hasn't changed: to consolidate and standardize disparate implementations of storage services that currently reside on various servers and arrays to a centralized, standardized platform(s). Today, services such as volume management, data copy, and data migration are handled differently by different operating environments and platforms. That means different people with different skills need to know different things. "Different" doesn't scale.

So if the rationale is valid and the direction is clear, then why aren't we there yet? There are several factions to blame.

Intelligent storage services should reside on a switch, which is the junction box of all IT traffic. But the switch vendors dramatically underestimated the engineering effort it would take to layer intelligence on their boxes. However, the switch vendors (finally) appear ready to rock. Cisco came out of the blocks first with support for EMC's Invista. Brocade quickly followed with its "data-mobility" solution based on the Rhapsody platform. And McData is ready to launch this year.

The second issue has been the software vendors. The mainstream players made a lot of noise initially and put a lot of effort into porting their software to intelligent switch platforms, but when the switch vendors ran into the brick development wall the software vendors put the brakes on.

EMC and Incipient led the efforts toward network-based intelligence over the last year or so. EMC is pushing Invista, with what appears to be tepid success initially. Incipient is the leading independent software player in this market. The good news for Incipient is that they have no other business to distract them, but the bad news is that until the switch vendors get their act together, Incipient has few platforms for its software. Now that the big switch vendors are finally in the game, we should start seeing some real momentum.

Vendors that snooze will lose not only the software game, but the storage and infrastructure behind it as well. EMC will come out on top initially by putting a massive amount of effort and resources into building the market. IBM is already a key player with its SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualization platform, and we think IBM is getting ready to do real battle via its Cisco relationship. Hewlett-Packard is expected to ship an intelligent switch later this year when the market gains momentum, which is smart as long as HP can react quickly once the light turns green.

The switch vendors have the entire footprint, but may also have challenges with their customer base. The OEMs that sell their gear have other agendas, so finding the correct balance will be tricky. Regardless, the switch vendors control their own destiny and should realize that they can't be "kept" by the other vendors if they want to thrive. We also expect Sun to make a play in this market—after all, they're the ones that said "the network is the computer" in the first place.

The winners will be the ones who get out first, because this market will roll out much like the Veritas volume manager success story. Veritas strategically gave away its volume manager to Sun, which blanketed the market with it. Veritas found itself with a giant installed base that it took advantage of by selling value-added software upgrades and ancillary products. Who will be the Veritas in the new age of network-based intelligence? I don't know, but whoever it is, once they get the footprint they will be very hard to replace.

Network-based intelligence is no longer just a fantasy. We've seen real RFPs from very big IT organizations recently, and the Fortune 1000 is the market for this caliber of technology.

So hang in there. Vendors never move fast enough, but the intelligent storage network train has just left the station. For a longer version of this article, visit my blog in the Viewpoints section at www.enterprisestrategygroup.com.

Steve Duplessie is founder and senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group.

This article was originally published on March 21, 2006