Make way for "data-aware" SAN appliances

By Robert Woolery

First-generation storage area networks (SANs) have enabled IT organizations to create custom-built infrastructures based on specific hardware configurations. While these implementations have satisfied early adopters in vertical markets, challenges remain for wider, more horizontal adoption, including:

  • Eliminating the random nature of media-rich data by creating intelligent, "data-aware" infrastructures
  • Simplifying SANs (from simpler installation to centralized management)
  • Addressing return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) issues
  • Preserving and extending existing technology investments

The goal is to create ultra-scalable, high-bandwidth infrastructures that span all platforms and environments and to reduce SAN implementation time from weeks or months of fine-tuning to less than a day. In doing so, the second phase of SAN development and deployment should be accelerated.

"Data-aware" infrastructures

E-commerce, streaming media, data mining, and online transaction processing are some of the driving forces behind today's multi-terabyte data repositories of text, images, sound, and video. The data explosion and an influx of new data types have elevated management, sharing, and protection needs of storage infrastructures.

At the same time, the heterogeneity of storage and server hardware has placed even greater demands on IT professionals charged with managing these resources. Traditional storage architectures, including first-generation SANs, have reached their limits in terms of scalability, performance, connectivity, and management in such distributed environments.

SAN appliances integrate heterogeneous networks and platforms.
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Access to and the efficient management of an ever-increasing volume of data have become two of the primary factors in business-critical decision-making. Increased reliance on applications such as decision support, data warehousing, databases, and graphics have all contributed to this trend. In addition, Web-based business operations and 24x7 customer interaction have intensified the focus on performance, availability, scalability, and management of these storage resources.

Addding to the complexity of enterprise computing and storage is the use of multiple, incompatible operating systems, not to mention interoperability issues with first-generation SAN components (e.g., RAID arrays, switches, hubs, and management software "point products").

As a result, organizations have been forced to dedicate substantial financial and personnel resources to manage and maintain distributed storage. Solving these problems requires an intelligent, "data-aware" network infrastructure, which supports a mix of data types, plugs into existing servers, upgrades existing storage into intelligent resources, and reduces TCO and capital acquisition costs.

Data-aware infrastructures have knowledge of data regardless of the devices on the network-knowledge that enables instant data access and management of the SAN from anywhere in the world. The infrastructure is free of bottlenecks, providing high-bandwidth, multi-dimensional scalability and secure, centralized management.

Adopting "data-aware" second-generation SANs can extend the distributed computing model to storage systems and servers, taking full advantage of the inherent benefits of network-centric architectures. These benefits include the de-coupling of storage from servers, as well as increased availability, scalability, and resource sharing. Second-generation SANs will bring networking technology into the storage infrastructure, improving flexibility, fault tolerance, and ease of management, as well as lowering TCO and increasing ROI through increased productivity and simplified data access.

The challenge is deciding how to implement a "data-aware" SAN architecture that makes data accessible to those who need it, while making the data easily manageable for those who administer it. This new architecture must overcome the I/O bottlenecks, scalability, and security obstacles of today's SANs, which are seen as barriers of entry for many IT departments.

Second-generation SANs

The SAN model will become widely adopted when clients and servers can connect directly to their data, simply, securely, and cost-effectively, without degrading performance. Key attributes of second-generation SANs will include:

  • Networking capability equivalent to proven LAN technology
  • Data and network intelligence
  • Multi-dimensional scalability
  • Heterogeneous, shared access to data
  • Low-latency transfers
  • Guaranteed reliability and availability
  • Protection of existing infrastructures and products

The next phase of SANs will require intelligent data management to provide high-speed connectivity for data-intensive applications across multiple operating systems. High-speed, shared-access SANs require dedicated connections operating at high-performance levels to support large data transfers.

Second-generation SANs will most likely be based on "appliances." A single "data-aware" SAN appliance, inserted directly into an existing IT infrastructure, will provide:

  • A high-bandwidth, highly scalable network into which existing servers can be plugged
  • The ability to protect legacy storage assets by transforming them into intelligent storage resources
  • Easy scaling across multiple dimensions, with no reduction in data availability or performance
  • Centralized data and SAN management
  • Reduced TCO and capital acquisition costs
  • Increased ROI through increased productivity and user access

An appliance can be optimized for the high-bandwidth requirements of the Internet or easily configured to provide shared access to (and backup of) large volumes of data.

A "data-aware" SAN appliance will allow IT professionals and systems integrators to quickly deploy SANs by installing an intelligent, special-purpose device behind their current server infrastructure. For companies without SAN infrastructures, SAN appliances will provide a relatively easy way to step into this powerful technology.

SAN appliances should offer access to heterogeneous environments comprising standalone and clustered servers, with the ability to back up data stored in centralized or distributed storage devices. Finally, the flexibility to connect legacy resources to SAN appliances must be as simple as plugging these devices into external ports.

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"Data-aware" appliances that create intelligent storage networks from existing resources, coupled with the prospect of simplifying the upgrade to SANs, will accelerate adoption of SAN technology.

Robert Woolery is the senior director of strategic business at DataDirect Networks Inc., in Chatsworth, CA. www.datadirectnet.com.

This article was originally published on June 01, 2000