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NetApp Looks to Future with 'Storage Grid'

Taking a page from many systems vendors, Network Appliance is developing a clustered storage infrastructure it calls a "storage grid."

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based concern said the strategy is expected to come to fruition in three years, one where tiers of storage exist to manage individual devices on a network seamlessly and on the fly. The idea is similar to the on-demand or utility computing strategies currently touted by IBM , HP , Sun Microsystems and others.

Suresh Vasudevan, vice president of products and solutions at Network Appliance, said NetApp's goals are to optimize a company's storage investment by balancing the cost of storage versus the need for applications; to future-proof enterprise investments to allay rip-and-replace fears; and to organize storage in such a way that applications are free from disruption.

One of the ways to do this, he said, is by scaling out infrastructure, as opposed to scaling up with by making larger more powerful machines.

To do this, the executive touted a "grid" made up of "server farms." He explained that more and more vendors are providing "server farms" made up of blade or other smaller servers linked together to work on similar tasks in grid fashion. These farms tend to be technology agnostic, yielding greater flexibility.

"Scaling up by building bigger, more complex systems has a lot of inherent costs associated with it," Vasudevan told internetnews.com. "They have utilization issues -- that's partly why other industries have said scaling out is an interesting approach to take. That same rule applies to storage as well."

This is the impetus behind the company's grid concept, which began about 18 months ago after NetApp noticed that several of its high-tech customers began asking for server farms.

Vasudevan argues that these principles need to be applied to the storage space, where large, often mind-boggling pools of stored data exit in data centers. These pools often have different performance, availability and cost characteristics and sit on top of different modes of storage, including fiber channel, , SCSI and ATA . To solve this dilemma, NetApp has proposed a four-layer approach.

What the first "tiered disk" layer of storage grid will do is "it affords you the ability to say for each application: 'I'm going to pick and choose the appropriate value versus cost.' The key to doing this well is not to expose a set of 15 different choices to the administrator because that would add to the complexity."

Enter layer two: storage clustering technology from Spinnaker Networks, which NetApp acquired for $300 million. The heart of the storage grid concept, this technology allows users to manage independent nodes [devices such as EMC's Clarion RAID systems or NetApp's FastFilers], which have parts of a larger file system.

"So if you lose a node, the rest of the nodes can take over and continue to provide the same image to the application side," Vasudevan explained. Storage grid also lets users move data from one node to another in the cluster to meet changing needs. "So if you've deployed a database on a node that is a low-end node and you decide you need much greater performance, you can access from the low-performing node to a high-performing node" and vice versa.

While customers have demanded all of these things, they want more, Vasudevan said, including the ability to make their applications unaware of changes such as load balancing so that they are not distracted by system changes. This is why NetApp has added a third "abstraction" layer, called the Global Name Space, as the third tier after the tiered disk storage and cluster.

This allows an application to "talk" to a physical device without affecting the device. In the fourth and final layer, the multiple types of storage "living" on the grid provision whatever an application calls for.

While he praised the work-in-progress, Enterprise Storage Group analyst Peter Gerr criticized the term "storage grid," which he said is essentially being used loosely to describe a "unified storage architecture," Gerr said that is more or less what most storage vendors, including VERITAS Software and EMC, are moving toward.

He characterized the use of the term as somewhat misleading because people often associate the grid term with grid computing, which he said this is definitely not.

But Gerr also said discussing the work at a time when rivals such as VERITAS Software and EMC are crystallizing their own storage strategies for data or information lifecycle management is wise. Tiered storage, Gerr explained, is a solid foundation to provide DLM or ILM.

"This runs to the notion of centralized management of distributed systems -- and also of sharing systems, which is what customers want to provide better resiliency in the storage clusters," he said. "Users like the notion of defining individual tiers of storage in their IT environment where they may automate or migrate their data."

In the future, Vasudevan said the goal is to have storage functionality, scaling, and load balancing tightly integrated with applications, which will then be integrated with server virtualization tools, akin to what VERITAS and VMware provide.

Overall, Gerr said "Storage grid is more NetApp goodness on steroids."