Store and deliver

Storage networking can be confusing, but in today's information-driven economy creating the right storage architecture can reap...

Storage networking can be confusing, but in today's information-driven economy creating the right storage architecture can reap huge rewards

Many of the predictions made about e-business changing the way we live and work have been proved wrong: fast-moving dotcom companies have not inherited the business world and our refrigerators are not doing our shopping for us, yet.

One prediction that has come true, however, is that information has become the most valuable corporate asset for almost every organisation. Most industry observers will verify this and suggest that companies are amassing this information, or data, at an alarming rate.

Today's most prevalent business applications - customer relationship management, business intelligence and enterprise resource planning - have all fuelled this immense growth in the amount of data being created and analysed.

Dealing with all this information requires a strategy and a key part of this strategy will involve coming up with the right storage infrastructure. Storage is often derided as a dull area of IT, but eyes soon light up with research from companies, such as IDC, that claims about 50% of all IT spend in big companies is on storage, and warnings from consultancy Gartner Group that storage demand will double every year for the next few years.

In fact, it can be argued that storage architecture is a more important consideration than processing power or the type of application you are using.

With today's IT infrastructure distributed much more widely over networks, data is scattered all over organisations, located on all sorts of different servers or storage media. If how you stored and accessed this data was not important before, in today's e-enabled world, where customers can be lost because of an out-of-date Web link or a site that takes too long to load, it has become essential.

Once you have established that you need to address your storage architecture in order to meet the demands of modern, information-hungry business, you are faced with a number of choices. They are all similar, in that they advocate the idea of creating a networked approach to data storage rather than relying on a host of distributed storage media.

Storage area networks (Sans) are based on Fibre Channel networking technology, which is known for its speed and reliability. They are very good at shifting data blocks, which makes them well suited for tasks involving databases, data back-up and recovery and archiving. And, of course, by creating a specialist storage network you can alleviate some of the pressure on your local area network (Lan).

Sounds good so far, but for the average IT director, there are important considerations to bear in mind. For most of them, installing a San is an expensive option. It probably means buying a load of new IT equipment, both to create the San and connect it to the rest of the company's IT infrastructure. It will also require more staff with a different skill set to manage it.

Network-attached storage (NAS) is an alternative to San, and it solves many of the problems associated with them. Because it allows file sharing across a range of operating systems using a company's existing IP- and Ethernet-based Lan, it costs less and is easier to install. NAS is great for providing file-level access to storage, the kind that is required for most end-user-oriented applications such as e-mail.

However, the data blocks that can be handled well by a San don't like IP-based environments. Many critics claim that NAS is not such a good long-term bet either, as it doesn't scale up.

A third and more recent option open to IT departments is a storage solution based on the emerging iSCSI standard. It is a protocol for sending SCSI commands - as used for sending blocks of data over Fibre Channel in a San solution - over IP on a typical Ethernet-based Lan. IBM launched the first iSCSI appliance, the IP Storage 200i, earlier this year.

The iSCSI standard offers a real alternative for companies which cannot afford the cost of rolling out a fibre channel San, and are not happy with the ability of NAS to handle applications such as databases. With leading technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard/Compaq behind it, it should develop into a popular "third way" in networked storage.

It is probably unrealistic to imagine one of these storage networking standards coming to dominate the market over the next few years. It is far more likely that technologies will continue to converge, making it easier for companies to create an IT infrastructure that will get the best out of their data.

Geoff Cole is sales support manager for IBM's European network storage advisory group

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