Midrange SANs embrace flash, server virtualisation and unified storage

Technology survey: Midrange SANs embrace enterprise features with flash, server virtualisation and unified storage among product upgrades in the past 12 months.

The midrange SAN market has achieved a staggering level of maturity in recent years. As little as a decade ago the SAN was solely the preserve of the enterprise user. But, as the needs of smaller organisations have become more sophisticated and as storage vendors have seen the opportunity to sell SAN products to them, the midrange has taken on many of the features of high end products.

That’s the big picture, but in the past 12 months we have seen a number of new midrange SAN products from the major storage array vendors. What can we learn from the new midrange SAN products about how the market is developing, and what can we expect from vendors in the future?

New midrange SAN hardware and features

All top five SAN vendors have released new products or acquired companies in the midrange SAN space within the past year:

  • At the end of 2010 Dell acquired Compellent, a midrange storage array vendor. The acquisition provided the company with access to Fibre Channel products and greater scalability compared with its existing EqualLogic range (Dell already has EqualLogic in the midrange SAN array space, but this only with the iSCSI protocol). Although Dell still resells Clariion arrays from EMC, it is unlikely Dell and EMC will continue their partnership in the future.
  • EMC released VNX, a SAN array range that encompasses the previous Clariion, Celerra and Centera products. This hybrid device, touted as “unified” infrastructure due to the range of I/O protocols it supports, directly competes with NetApp’s existing FAS range, which has been marketed as a unified device for some time. EMC also released the VNXe, an entry-level version of the VNX with limited I/O protocol support.
  • NetApp extended its existing midrange FAS3000 series with the upgraded FAS3200 and released Data Ontap 8.0 as an attempt to streamline the two code bases of its previous Ontap and GX software platforms. The FAS3200 brought incremental performance and capacity improvements to NetApp’s existing FAS3000 models.
  • IBM released the V7000, a completely new SAN array based on its SVC (SAN Volume Controller) appliance. The V7000 can deliver both primary storage and virtualise other vendors’ equipment, providing capabilities to ease migration to the IBM solution.
  • HP acquired 3PAR, adding the InServ storage arrays to its newly revamped P2000 and P4000 (previously LeftHand) arrays. 3PAR is being positioned as the future of HP’s storage strategy as the EVA reaches end of life.

At first glance these products may appear to be very different, but there is a lot of common ground among the vendors.

All the products provide much greater scalability than ever before, from a few terabytes to hundreds of terabytes in some cases. All the products provide wider protocol support, so called unified storage. As we will also see, these arrays also provide a wider range of features than ever before.

Everyone has flash

Almost all the new midrange SAN products now support flash storage (SSD) in some form or other. Even NetApp, which had discounted the idea of storage tiering, released an SSD shelf for the new FAS3200 range. Of course, some vendors are able to use flash storage better than others; Compellent, EMC, IBM and HP offer block-level automated tiering that makes flash utilization more efficient. However, the message is clear; SSD is mainstream and a feature all vendors should support.

Ease of management

The new midrange SAN product releases were also accompanied by a slew of new management tools. These are aimed at companies that don’t have large storage teams and make configuration and provisioning a simple task.

EMC released Unisphere, a consolidated midrange management tool to accompany its new VNX hardware. The ease of use was demonstrated most graphically at the VNX launch event, where a 10-year-old boy replaced a failed VNX drive using software on his iPad.

IBM used the experience of its XIV management tools to develop a new GUI for the V7000 series. This follows an increasing trend in the SAN management software market, where images of the device are used to convey configuration and event information. Compellent and 3PAR both already have rich GUIs that provide for simplified array management.

The direction here is clear; the vendors see storage management as a significant cost in deploying infrastructure and so are working hard to simplify the process, especially for those organisations that have no dedicated storage team. Management GUIs are becoming more graphical, moving away from the idea of a consistent view for heterogeneous storage devices.

Server virtualisation support

Every vendor is keen to demonstrate that its products work well in virtualised environments. This is happening in a number of ways. Hardware support for VAAI (vSphere API for Array Integration) is becoming a key selling point, and support for this feature was announced from most of the vendors during the past 12 months. VAAI improves performance and offloads data movement tasks from the VMware vSphere hypervisor to the storage array. Almost all vendors also provide plug-ins for vCenter, enabling arrays to be managed and visualised through the single vCenter console. Other features such as thin provisioning (available across almost all vendor arrays) are being highlighted as good for virtualised environments.

The virtualisation message is being strongly promoted as it is seen as an enabler to two major IT strategies: integrated hardware stacks and cloud computing.

Unified computing

All top five storage vendors are promoting the benefits of integrating server, network and storage components into a single unified computing “stack.” EMC formed the VCE coalition with VMware and Cisco; NetApp works with Cisco and VMware to sell FlexPods; HP packages its BladeServer, networking and storage products together under the Converged Infrastructure brand; both Dell and IBM have all the components to produce their own integrated hardware stacks.

At this stage, it is unclear whether customers will choose to adopt such stack infrastructures from a single vendor, but for medium-sized enterprises there are clear benefits. Firstly, the products provide a single contact for support issues; there are no opportunities for vendors to blame one another when things go wrong as the solution will have been certified by the vendor in the first place.

Second, the vendors are placing more emphasis on developing integrated management and orchestration software, helping to reduce overall costs by reducing the management overhead. This leads on to the adoption of “private clouds” as the future strategy for the delivery of IT.

The journey to the cloud

Almost all the major storage vendors have a cloud story. This has started with a focus on virtualisation within the data centre, leading to an adoption of a more service-based architecture or “private cloud” computing.

Although the concept of cloud as a strategy has been overhyped, there are benefits in enabling customers to move to service-based delivery. Utilisation and efficiency can be improved, and internal IT organisations can compete against public cloud providers such as Amazon.

The last 12 months has seen a wide range of new technologies delivered in the midrange SAN space by the major storage vendors. The focus has been in increasing features and functionality and, as a strategy, moving customers into the virtualisation and cloud computing space. Vendors have had to find ways of differentiating themselves from the competition, in what could be seen as a commodity market. In the coming 12 months, we will see these vendors trying to increase their market share by providing ways to reduce hardware and management costs and increase the agility of IT organisations in delivering computing services.  

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