File virtualisation becoming a network service

The US$210 million acquisition of Acopia this week marks the third such merger between a file virtualisation startup and a networking firm.

This week saw the fourth acquisition of a file virtualisation startup in the last year and the second in the last six months. In the last two years, four of the five companies specialising in file virtualisation have been acquired by larger players, and of those, three have been acquired by networking companies: NuView by Brocade Communications Systems last year, NeoPath Networks by Cisco Systems in April and yesterday's acquisition of Acopia Networks by F5 Networks.

According to storage industry analysts, this pattern suggests two rules of thumb about the maturing market. Like continuous data protection (CDP), which saw consolidation following a cycle of hype last year (see also Symantec quietly snaps up Revivio's assets), file virtualisation is becoming a feature, rather than a standalone product; and that file virtualisation is evolving into a feature of networking products in particular.

"CDP, file virtualisation and de-dupe are all features that will succeed when combined with ... other product solutions as opposed to individual point products," said Greg Schulz, founder and analyst with the StorageIO Group, adding that he expects to see de-dupe, which is still in the "hype" phase, go through a similar transition in the near future.

For the time being, it's file virtualisation's turn. As with CDP, among users, it's become clearer lately that the use cases for file virtualisation as a standalone product are not widespread.

"I'm using probably half of what it does," said Bill Montgomery, manager of information systems for LuLu Press, an online publishing service, of the ARX switch from Acopia his company purchased earlier this year. He calls the product a "godsend" as it relieved his staff from having to constantly shuffle 30 terabytes (TB) of customer .pdf files containing publication data connected to EMC Celerra NS502 systems that limit volumes to 400 GB. "With that system we had 90 mount points and were spending around 25% of our time just load balancing, moving files off full volumes."

However, he also admitted he's probably unique among network attached storage (NAS) users: "It's been a total godsend to have a single 30 TB mount point, but that's because I have a single application I'm using with this. A typical data centre will probably have multiple applications that need that capacity," making the single mount point moot.

Meanwhile, experts say the pattern of consolidation into the networking space makes sense but wasn't necessarily predictable. "File virtualisation, like block storage virtualisation, can be deployed in several different locations -- the server, the network and the storage systems or in various combinations," Schulz said. "There is no right or wrong place, no black or white as to where to put the various forms of [the technology]."

So why the interest from network players?

"The explosion in file storage is also an explosion in IP storage, as much as we talk about iSCSI, IP storage primarily means file," said Rick Villars, senior analyst for IDC. "It's logical that people spending a lot of time optimising IP networks for applications identify this as a fast-growing area. They already offer network-based application and server load balancing, and what are filesystems and NAS but specialised application sets?"

Another advantage networking companies have is that they already have a birds-eye view of the physical devices needing to be virtualised. "Companies are very hesitant about loading software or agents across hundreds of physical servers and NAS appliances. Now imagine those physical servers are running several virtual machines," said Stephanie Balaouras, senior analyst with Forrester Research. "For existing environments, the ability to add another layer of abstraction without disrupting their environment is important."

According to Arun Taneja, founder and analyst with the Taneja Group, the melding of file virtualisation with WAFS is also a factor. The ultimate dream in this space is a global unified namespace spanning not just physical devices in one location but multiple geographically separate data centres. "Any WAFS or WAN optimisation company, like Riverbed [Technologies] with no file virtualisation capability, is looking at it, either at their own acquisitions or at developing something internally."

If Riverbed is in the market, there's only one dance partner left: Attune Networks. Taneja pointed out that Acopia's whopping USUS$210 million selling price "just increased their valuation, and they're doing nothing more than what they were doing yesterday."

Meanwhile, one outlier in this space when it comes to the market consolidation is EMC. It purchased file virtualisation player Rainfinity in 2005, though it hasn't seen much traction with the product, which users have found useful mainly in migration projects.

Analysts predict that EMC's strong partnerships with the network players will keep things civil, but Taneja said EMC still needs to figure out its approach to WAN. "I've had some hard conversations with EMC about the need for WAFS. I still can't say they're very enamoured with it," he said. "But they're going to have to put a strategy together."

To date, EMC has announced partnerships with Cisco and Tacit Networks to offer the technology, but does not have its own product. There has been some speculation in the industry that EMC's acquisition last year of Avamar Technologies could lead to a WAFS product, with Avamar's de-dupe providing the single-instancing and compression capabilities, but so far no such product has been announced.

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