Lack of apps hinders intelligent switching

By Kevin Komiega

Intelligent switches have long been the harbinger of a new wave of storage management applications, and the idea of putting applications such as virtualization, replication, and data migration in the fabric has been generally accepted by the industry as the smart way to go. So where are all of the customers?

The benefits of network-based intelligence on fabric switches include reduced overhead, centralized management, and increased ROI-and the list goes on and on. But the number of enterprises implementing these solutions is relatively small as many, especially medium-sized companies, are opting for network appliances to accomplish the same goals.

“The overall sales are ridiculously low given that there are good applications for intelligent switches today,” says Arun Taneja, founder and senior analyst at the Taneja Group.

Taneja says although fabric-based heterogeneous storage virtualization has been in the works for about five years, and real products are hitting the streets, he believes the market simply has “not gone anywhere.”

To understand why intelligent switches have yet to take the storage world by storm you have to understand the evolution of the intelligent switching market. Many innovative technologies are created by small start-ups. On the whole, intelligent switching began the same way. Vendors such as DataCore, FalconStor, and StoreAge Technologies created heterogeneous software applications designed to run in the network (although they used different types of implementation).

Taneja says those start-ups had to grapple with two issues: They often weren’t focused on large enterprises, and the bigger vendors did not want a relatively inexpensive software product, switch, or appliance sitting in front of their arrays enabling heterogeneous management and virtualization. “That is why adoption has been slow and [intelligent switching] has been suppressed for so long,” says Taneja.

But many of those early vendors re-emerged in different ways by incorporating their intelligent applications into appliances or as software products aimed at specific markets such as backup, virtualization, and data protection for medium-sized companies.

Then Cisco hit the scene 18 months ago with an intelligent switching platform based on its MDS 9000 product line, and Maxxan began shipping its MXV320 intelligent switching platform at about the same time. Storage switching mainstays Brocade and McData threw their hats in the ring with their own fabric-based application platforms. But the market still did not explode as the hype machine had predicted.

Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, says there are more issues at play than just a shortage of applications available for intelligent switches. “The reality is the switch manufacturers underestimated just what it would take to execute intelligent applications on the switches, and that has caused big delays,” says Duplessie.

Case study: AOL

But some companies have plowed ahead with intelligent switches. For example, America Online has taken the intelligent switching plunge with Brocade, and Dan Pollack, AOL’s operations architect, is a firm proponent of smart switches.

“The network is the right place for a lot of the storage intelligence. If it is a type of access service then it belongs in the network,” says Pollack. “It’s an easy decision to make if you already have a large distributed environment and want more control.”

Pollack is currently managing more than 70 Brocade Fibre Channel directors and seven of Brocade’s SilkWorm Multiprotocol Routers (MPRs), also known as the AP7420 intelligent switch.

Pollack and his team use the MPRs to create ad hoc connectivity between different data-center sites in northern Virginia. He also uses the devices as gateways. AOL has approximately 10,000 fabric ports installed and manages about 5 petabytes of networked storage.

“You don’t want edge devices to determine who can talk to whom, and there are too many configuration variables with arrays. It’s easier to leave the configuration data in the fabric so that everything is in a single place,” says Pollack.

Pollack is in the process of evaluating how using other applications on the platform might benefit his infrastructure, including network-based virtualization and data migration.

But Pollack is one of the few early adopters of intelligent switching. The technology has been painfully slow in catching on with the masses.

In the meantime, vendors have sought other ways to raise the IQ of storage fabrics using appliances. IBM’s Storage Virtualization Controller (SVC), EMC’s Invista, and StoreAge Technologies’ SVM are just a few examples of appliance-based network intelligence.

“While executing intelligence directly on the switch has proven to be a challenge, there are tons of examples of intelligence running in the network, and that trend will continue,” says ESG’s Duplessie.

Case study: Friends Provident

Martin Bruce, a storage consultant for distributed systems at UK-based financial services firm Friends Provident, runs storage arrays from several vendors, including EMC, HDS, and IBM.

“We had an issue with one of our monolithic SAN arrays and we couldn’t manage on-the-fly,” Bruce explains. “We tried the host-based route, but management became difficult as our environment got bigger.”

Bruce decided to evaluate network-based intelligence before his management malaise got out of hand. He went with an appliance-based approach instead of an intelligent fabric switch. Bruce runs StoreAge’s SVM virtualization appliance with the company’s MultiView, MultiCopy, and MultiMirror software applications for data movement and management.

“The centralized volume management is the key. We now have arrays from EMC, HDS, and IBM centrally managed with a consistent management platform. All of our day-to-day management is done using the StoreAge tools,” says Bruce.

Friends Provident also makes use of snapshot capabilities to migrate data between heterogeneous arrays.

“Switches were originally designed to do switching. Now we’re asking them to do all of these other things,” says Bruce. “But it’s still quite early for the technology. It’s an ideal place to run applications if you can do it without affecting performance. I think adoption will be slow, but other applications will come around to vindicate the technology.”

Those other applications seem to be right around the corner. The industry consensus is that EMC’s acquisition of replication vendor Kashya will give intelligent switching, especially Cisco’s platform, a proverbial shot in the arm (see “EMC buys replication vendor,” InfoStor, June 2006, p. 10).

Kashya’s KBX5000 data-protection platform features integrated disaster recovery, replication, and continuous data protection (CDP) functionality. Kashya’s disaster-recovery and replication technology will be integrated with EMC’s network-based Invista virtualization platform.

Invista works in tandem with intelligent switches, and many in the industry have been waiting for EMC to release applications to bring Invista to life. The addition of Kashya’s technology to the Invista platform could fuel intelligent switching, according to Taneja.

“EMC purchasing Kashya represents the best opportunity for intelligent switches to actually take on meaning,” says Taneja. “We are going to see some real activity in this space in the next six months.”

Emulex completes Aarohi acquisition

Emulex recently completed its acquisition of Aarohi Communications, a maker of storage processors, network adapters, and software. Emulex plans to use Aarohi’s products to gain a foothold in the 10Gbps Ethernet market and to boost its offerings in the so-called “intelligent storage platform” space, which includes storage virtualization technology.

Emulex will use Aarohi’s processor engines to further develop its storage virtualization products for switching platforms and SAN appliances. Aarohi’s product portfolio consists of processors, adapters, and FabricStream software modules, all of which are designed to speed up the I/O performance of storage devices and networks.

“The acquisition brings Emulex the ability to enter new markets and expand our products in markets we are already in,” says Brian Reed, VP of business development at Emulex. “We are expanding into new aspects of both servers and storage.”

Reed declined to comment on specific product plans, but says that Emulex is focused on technologies such as 10Gbps iSCSI, high-performance server clustering, and acceleration of Ethernet-based network traffic.

Aarohi’s processor technology, including its AV150 Intelligent Storage Processor, enables applications such as non-disruptive data migration and replication, and heterogeneous volume management.

Aarohi’s current customers include McData, which will bring Aarohi’s technology to market in a forthcoming intelligent switch platform. In addition, Aarohi has been working with a number of strategic part-ners on porting software to its hardware platform. - Kevin Komiega

This article was originally published on July 01, 2006