Q&A: Vendors Of SAN

Representatives from four prominent SAN (storage area network) vendors answer questions about VARs, mass storage, and the future of the industry.

1 What should VARs look for when selecting a SAN system?

Ancor Communications, Cal Nelson: VARs should make sure the technology is proven and the solution is made up of products that are "best of breed." Additionally, these products should be certified for interoperability and ability to deliver a reliable, complete solution. VARs need to look for vendors that offer training, not only in technical engineering areas, but also in sales and support. They should also look for usability features: easy-to-use management tools for easy installation, ability to add connections on the fly, and excellent service and support. Many SANs start out small, but need to grow almost infinitely to encompass future growth of stored data.

Brocade Communications, Peter Tarrant: VARs should look for solutions that are open and standards-based. This minimizes the amount of integration and interoperability testing required. It also gives the SAN the capability to expand and grow as the customer's storage needs grow. VARs should start from the ground up and make sure the SAN's infrastructure is as reliable and robust as it can be. Fibre Channel switches, directors, and hubs provide this connectivity for SANs. The networking infrastructure should be designed to support the highest data availability and reliability demands. This way, the applications deployed over it will meet those needs.

EMC, Phil Tsihlis: In practice, today's SAN implementations have not lived up to expectations. Typically, SANs remain server-specific, despite being detached storage from the server. Or, they may be limited to only one particular platform or operating system. Interoperability among the various devices that make up the SAN may be limited or in many cases, nonexistent. An ESN (enterprise storage network), on the other hand, addresses the shortcomings of SANs by providing a single infrastructure that exploits the power of information regardless of its location. ESNs are completely altering the relationship between servers and storage and, by extension, redefining the relationship between users and their information.

Hewlett-Packard, Jim Osborne: With SANs today, it's very important to work with vendors that can help the VAR with a fully tested and supported configuration. SANs are like SCSI (small computer systems interface) and LANs (local area networks) were 10 years ago. There are not many standards yet, and not all of the parts, pieces, and software work well together. So, a vendor that takes the guesswork out of what works well is important for the VAR today. Vendors can give VARs the ability to take this supported configuration and install all the parts, pieces, and software for the customer.

2 What is the most common mistake you see VARs making with SANs?

Ancor Communications, Cal Nelson: Some VARs enter this market without proper technical or sales training. They don't understand the customers' needs. They don't thoroughly test a solution before installing it at the customer site.

VARs must receive excellent engineering training to install the complete SAN systems at the customer site and be able to take the first-level call for support. They must also receive sales training to learn how to sell SAN solutions.

Brocade Communications, Peter Tarrant: VARs should work carefully with their suppliers and take advantage of any of the suppliers' programs. Programs include interoperability testing, training, certification, and channel co-op marketing. Channel programs help partners simplify the configuration and integration of storage area networking components.

EMC, Phil Tsihlis: The most common mistake we see is VARs being misled by price. There's never been more truth to the old adage, "You get what you pay for."

Beyond price, VARs need to focus on solutions that comprise fully tested, interoperable offerings and the proven methodologies to implement them.

Hewlett-Packard, Jim Osborne: Today, VARs need to look at SAN as an opportunity to help customers understand what a SAN can do and can't do. They can help customers by putting together tested and supported configurations. SAN is not "plug and play." Hype has gotten in the way of reality. The Fibre Channel infrastructure goes together well, if all of the vendors' supported parts are used. If VARs try to mix and match parts like they do for LANs (local area networks), they will encounter interoperability issues. VARs can help customers with these interoperability issues. But there aren't enough vendors working together yet to avoid finger pointing. That's why tested configurations are so important.

3 What can we expect from SANs in the next few years?

Ancor Communications, Cal Nelson: We can expect explosive growth from SAN. Much like the standard LAN networks today, SANs will become standard as the dedicated storage backbones in large IT (information technology) environments. As storage capacities multiply, SANs will have to grow with them to accommodate additional storage.

Brocade Communications, Peter Tarrant: We expect SANs to evolve from today's implementations in several ways. Today's islands of SANs will expand to become interconnected across a corporation via high-speed links, such as metropolitan area optical networks. Therefore, SAN implementations will continue to increase in size – multi-switch SAN "fabrics" comprising 20, 30, and more switches will be common. SANs will become more heterogeneous.

EMC, Phil Tsihlis: The reality of SANs will begin to move up to an enterprise level. It will include a higher level of focus on heterogeneity and true enterprise interoperability. ESNs (enterprise storage networks) are designed with the enterprise infrastructure in mind, unlike SANs, which began as a way to consolidate distributed servers and their attached storage. As a result, ESN is able to support highly heterogeneous enterprise environments today. They include everything from proprietary mainframe systems to distributed UNIX and Windows NT servers coming from different vendors.

Hewlett-Packard, Jim Osborne: As standards become available, SANs will become like LANs are today. They will also be able to offer a competitive solution to the average customer. However, one of the biggest hurdles for SAN in the future is the ability to truly share disk storage. Today, most vendors use zoning or LUN (logical unit number) mapping to allow for the partitioning of a disk array to multiple servers. In the future, an industry standard file system will need to be implemented to allow for true sharing.

4 Are you starting to position SANs as part of applications? If so, what do you feel are the advantages?

Ancor Communications, Cal Nelson: VARs should establish the fundamental knowledge to build, sell, and support SAN solutions. They must invest in the best Fibre Channel components, engineering product training, sales product knowledge, and potential product service. They need to test each end-to-end solution very carefully before installation. This will build credibility with the customers, not only at installation, but every single day the SAN is in service.

Brocade Communications, Peter Tarrant: VARs should be specializing in open, standards-based solutions from today's market leaders. These leaders will be demonstrating the greatest investment in technology and VAR channel development.

EMC, Phil Tsihlis: VARs need to be building the foundation today by developing a robust services organization. This organization should be built around storage and networking skills that can implement enterprise storage networks.

Hewlett-Packard, Jim Osborne: VARs need to become the SAN consultants for their customers. They need to provide a solution that is backed up by a vendor. Vendors should understand how to make VARs and customers successful. Vendors need to offer presales consulting, implementation/installation, and post-sales support for their SAN customers. As VARs install more successful SANs, they will become known as the SAN gurus of their marketplace. If they can do this, they will sell a lot more than just storage. They will be able to sell computers, storage, infrastructure, and all of the services to make a SAN. It should be an excellent margin business for the VAR!

5 Are you starting to position SAN as part of applications? If so, what do you feel are the advantages? If not, why not?

Ancor Communications, Cal Nelson: SANs are obviously a perfect fit for LAN-free backup, an application that spans all industries. But almost any application that requires fast access to large amounts of stored data can benefit from SAN. For example, Internet service, broadcast, video editing, geoseismic, medical imaging, and data warehousing can benefit from SAN. It may make sense for VARs that focus on any of these applications to bundle SANs into solutions.

Brocade Communications, Peter Tarrant: Storage area networks are a fundamental requirement for the next generation of business applications. We view a storage area network as a required foundation for these applications.

EMC, Phil Tsihlis: Storage networking today isn't being positioned around one specific application. It is raising operational excellence for the enterprise. For instance, the improved disaster restart capabilities spawned by enterprise storage networks are a major benefit to all applications hosted in a SAN environment.

Hewlett-Packard, Jim Osborne: We have been providing a library-sharing SAN for about a year now. This solution allows multiple servers to share a tape library. Each server can back up to this shared library. A stand-alone drive is not needed on each server to do a backup. SANs can reduce the amount of time and labor spent on backup. Backups are scheduled with the tape library. The library changes the cartridges and performs the labor that people used to do for changing cartridges.

Ann DeDad