Separating storage networking marketing from reality

SearchStorageUK writer takes one of SNIA's storage networking courses and learns about SAN, NAS and how to avoid storage vendor lock-in.

If you're Danish and someone whacks you round the back of the head, you'll probably exclaim, "Nas!" That's one of the things I learned from a fellow delegate on the Storage Networking Industry Association SNIA Certified Storage Professional training course – which I am attending this week in the 19th-century stately home setting of the Elvetham Hotel in Hampshire.

That's not all I learned, of course. A key premise of the week-long training is that if there were no commercial interests at stake in developing and selling storage systems, we'd all speak the same language – a SAN would be a SAN and NAS would NAS. But storage is big business and vendors spend lots on developing systems and competing with each other, and when they have a customer they want to keep them. So, their products have to be made to look uniquely suited to your needs. And once they've sold them to you, they want them to seem (or even be) unique, thereby locking you in.

When a vendor only sells one thing, that's when they'll try and sell you one thing to do everything
Peter Coleman
MDInfinity I/O
All of which -- for the user who isn't drawing dividends from the share price of Storage Monolith Corp -- makes designing systems fraught with the difficulty of negotiating between what vendors tell you and what their products really are.

Led by Peter Coleman, MD, of SNIA partner and training provider Infinity I/O, a key aim of the course is to, "separate marketing and reality." Coleman boasts an impressive CV and an encyclopedic knowledge of storage networking that has seen him work with clients including Sky TV on their launch, develop the first all-fibre office in the City of London and train as a financial trader to gain the knowledge needed to design a Midland Bank trading system.

The first two days of the course provide a common – ie, SNIA-approved and vendor-independent -- view of storage networking history with the practical goal of allowing delegates to be able to assess a business's storage needs and begin to specify the type of system that will best meet those needs.

Storage, as Coleman says, is an arena replete with "standards, and standards on steroids," so imparting a common understanding of storage networking is critical to anyone wanting to understand what they need to buy.

"When a vendor only sells one thing, that's when they'll try and sell you one thing to do everything," says Coleman. So the SNIA 'shared storage model' is a key element of the first two days' learning. Breaking things down to fundamentals of block and file access and the ways that different type of systems – SAN, NAS and the effective hybrid NAS head on NAS/SAN – fit different needs.

This is what many of the delegates are there for: to gain the knowledge needed to design systems. And in gaining vendor independent knowledge, to save money, both in the short term, by specifying correctly, and in the long term, by avoiding vendor lock-in. As one delegate from a pharmaceutical company setting out on an ILM project said, "If a colleague goes on a course at [insert vendor] they spend the next six weeks telling us we need to get rid of everything and implement [insert vendor]'s kit."

Other delegates are there from integrators, and their aim too is to be able to specify storage systems, but this time for their clients.

Armed with a broad overview that cuts through the marketing hype, the course then drills down through architectures and components, I/O interfaces, RAID, hosts, arrays, iSCSI, NAS, the Fibre Channel protocol, fabrics operation and design etc. etc. By the end of the week you'll know, among other things, how to access file- and block-level storage with NAS, why slower discs may mean better performance in certain circumstances, whether you should run iSCSI in hardware or software, what iSCSI is good for and why you probably shouldn't run it on exactly the same network as your client-server traffic.

Oh and you may also learn that DAS is Danish for outside toilet without a flush. But that'll depend who's on the course with you.

Postscript:

I am now qualified as a SNIA-Certified Storage 'Professional' and 'Engineer' after passing two exams on the final day of the course. I am trained as a journalist and have bachelors and masters degrees, and although I've covered IT for a number of years have never worked in the field. I have not done training of this type before and it's a credit to the training provider that I passed those tests – by the skin of my teeth, admittedly.

The course was extremely intensive and went from the giddy heights of SAN topologies and ILM down to the mind-boggling detail of Fibre Channel frame components and 8-bit/10-bit encoding. But, the information was presented superbly with time to discuss concepts and their practical implications as we went along.

Before I attended the course a colleague of mine had asked if, after the course, I'd be going to the dentists as a way of enjoying myself. He had me worried for a moment about what I'd let myself in for. I'm glad to say his ribbing was well wide of the mark and that the course was really enjoyable – even though it was a challenge for a non-practitioner.

Read more on SAN, NAS, solid state, RAID

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