Storage Tanked?

Competition in high-tech can take some pretty funny twists and turns. When
IBM first dropped hints of its plans to drop a “Storage
Tank” onto the industry a couple of years ago, analysts agreed at the time
that it would be a strong assault on the competition like HP , EMC
and Hitachi Data Systems.


To be sure, when Linda Sanford, then IBM’s vice president and group
executive for the storage subsystem group, said in November of 2000 that
Storage Tank will be the fix for problems associated with operating a
heterogeneous storage network made up of equipment from mixed vendors, the
solution appeared to be the Holy Grail for customers.


It meant IBM’s system would work freely with products from EMC, Hitachi Data
Systems and others who trade in storage infrastructure. It meant total
interoperability as Sanford told the public Storage Tank will bring unity to
all the devices being used in a storage network, regardless of vendor
origin.


But when product managers at those companies saw the way Big Blue was
presented the finished
product
a couple of weeks ago, they weren’t all that impressed. They
called it a large, proprietary file server that seemed geared to compete
with smaller storage software and utility computing specialist Veritas
Software and not the major systems vendors.


So what is this Storage Tank? That was the moniker for technologies
developed over the last five to six years in the company’s Almaden research
facility. But recently, it has taken definitive shape in a product called
TotalStorage SAN File System, a product that lets customers share billions
of diverse files and was designed to provide one medium of control to manage
storage devices and data, as opposed to multiple control points.


In short, IBM would like this product to be the be-all, end-all file system
that helps customers better manage their data, which is zipping through the
network at multiple points; the bigger the network, the greater the need for
something like IBM’s new product. But the product doesn’t work with
any device or software as promised a few years ago. It works with
Shark hardware and with IBM’s AIX version of the Unix operating system, as
well as certain Windows operating systems.

To be fair, IBM has pledged support for other vendor’s products next year. Bruce Hillsberg, director of storage software strategy and technology
at IBM, said the point of the SAN File System is to help companies
with large data warehousing needs and customers deploying grid computing
environments become more competitive by providing an easier way for
administrators to manage the massive amounts of data that is stored.


Competitors seized upon this gulf between what was promised and what was
delivered.


Ken Steinhardt, director of technological analysis at EMC said the SAN File
System is a “far cry from what we expected.”


“Their original position in November 2000 was that they had specific plans
for an all-encompassing virtual environment that would address every major
storage product,” Steinhardt told internetnews.com. “But this looks
like a proprietary IBM file system that doesn’t integrate with third-party
storage. Sure, it looks interesting but it looks different from what was
originally announced.”


Steinhardt also pointed out that the arrival of the first fruit of Storage
Tank comes much later than it was originally announced. “In 2000, they said
it was right around the corner, but then the quotes changed. Then it was the
end of 2001 and then mid to late 2002. Now here it is and it’s near the end
of 2003 and the original announcement has been whittled down to something
substantially smaller.”


Steinhardt also questioned whether or not the file system is something
customers will actually want. “It looks interesting but would I want a
distributed environment that may suffer from latency to go into someone
else’s storage? You should never try and build a proprietary file system.”


But analysts were not so quick to dismiss IBM’s new technology.


Enterprise Storage Group Analyst Steve Kenniston said SAN File System was
promising, noting that there are many, many applications that could benefit
from this type of technology, and that paired with IBM’s SAN Volume System
and Controller could yield some solid virtualization capabilities. He said
he sees SAN File System as something that would work in a lot of niche
places where large file types exist — something that could work well under
Oracle’s Real Application Cluster (RAC) environment.


“As far as the competition — HP is working on something but the real thing
I believe is what does HDS and EMC do?” Kenniston wondered. “Both big
storage companies (compete with the high end that IBM has — Shark) but have
no file system software or “real” virtualization software – that will scale
like Tank They don’t own the IP for it and would have to leverage somebody
else’s system. That said, they need something and due to what it takes to
build one, it MUST be a buy decision and there isn’t a lot out there. SGI
has one and their storage business needs a boost… so it is a good
question.”


In the meantime, Kenniston the more appropriate competitive comparison with
SAN File System might be between IBM and Veritas, which
he said is the leading file system across all platforms. EMC’s Steinhardt
agreed that his company does not seem to be a competitive target with the
file system.


Scott Gready Director, Storage Software Technical Office, HP Network Storage
Solutions, also questioned what problems IBM was trying to address with the
SAN File System.


“SAN changes have really gained mainstream acceptance as a way to deploy
storage,” Gready told internetnews.com. “What customers are
interested in is how can I deploy SANs in as simple a way as possible. When
you create a product, you need to ask the customer: ‘What do you want your
SAN to do? Do you want the SAN to reliably deliver storage capacity, and do
you want to put a lot of array controllers on a network to get lot of
flexibility, or do you want just a simple array controller? Customers don’t
want SAN to manage their files — they rely on an OS [operating system] to
do that.”


Accordingly, Gready said, OS vendors consider the file system to be their
domain. They require a lot of new components that have to be OS specific,
such as a host agent, installable file system, meta data server, he said. “I
think the OS vendors are the real ones IBM will be competing with here.”


“We don’t have customers asking for a SAN to manage files,” Gready said.
“Customers are worried about how to manage their data in view of compliance
regulations, HIPAA, etc. “If the problem IBM is trying to solve is file
sharing then NAS has come a long way in terms of becoming a
cost-effective file solution. It’s become the industry standard mechanism so
you don’t have to install proprietary file systems on every server.”


Forrester Research analyst Anders Lofgren said he sees the value in the SAN
File System, but he isn’t so sure customers would be so willing to migrate
to the IBM architecture.


“The answer to that depends on where customers are — on how far along into
SAN deployment they are,” Lofgren told internetnews.com “New
customers may not need it. I think this most attractive to customers who
have a number of SANs and want to combine them. They have designed this SAN
so you don’t have to rip-and-replace infrastructure, which is key. You can
install it along existing file systems and move application data over into
it to use existing assets.”


Lofgren said the question then extends to the long term: “Where is it going?
How does the file system they replaced with IBM interact with applications?
Can they quantify that wit hard numbers? This is definitely a new concept —
it aims to meets the challenge in describing and demonstrating quantifiable
data,” the analysts said.


Lofgren said that while he doesn’t believe competitors will answer the
problem with the same approach, he knows the SAN File System is not for
everybody. Instead, he said, he sees virtualization picking up at a much
faster clip. “It’s just much more approachable to the end user than a global
file system.”


One thing’s for sure, vendors and analysts alike are clearly interested in
seeing how the fruits of Storage Tank post SAN File System further down the
warpath.

News Around the Web