Hiding the Storage Plumbing

Ease of use is trickling down to every aspect of enterprise computing, even storage. Drew Robb takes a look at how today's innovations are paving the way for tomorrow's 'plug and play' SANs.
Posted January 2, 2004

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

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Over time computing does get easier. For example, it took Earthlink founder Sky Dayton eighty hours to connect to the Internet the first time he tried. Nowadays I'm not sure you could buy a computer without access built in.

Take it out of the box, plug in the cables, turn it on, and it will hunt down the connection on its own. Further, now you can hot-plug in a new peripheral and the operating system automatically locates it and adjusts the necessary settings.

Other aspects, however, have not yet arrived at that level of simplicity. Such is the case with storage area networks (SAN). Although the technology has been around for years, at a recent Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) conference, twenty experts from the equipment vendors spent the entire night trying to get all the pieces of the state-of-the-art SAN demo to work together properly. The individual components are superb, but they just don't play well together.

"The industry is fractured and focuses on point products," says Yogesh Gupta, Chief Technology Officer for Islandia, NY-based Computer Associates, Inc. "A high level of abstraction is needed to hide the plumbing and simplify the management view."

Current Scene

The main problem with enterprise storage systems is that they are, essentially, one-off rather than commodity items. It's similar to the early years of the automotive industry. Automobiles are complex items containing tens of thousands of parts, and they used to be custom-built the way many storage systems are now. But today if you want a new car, you just walk into a showroom, go for a test drive, sign the paperwork, and drive it home that same afternoon.

Although the components under the hood vary greatly from one car to another, essential aspects of the human interface are similar. Although it may take a while to learn the intricacies of the stereo system, you don't need to attend a four-day workshop to learn how to drive it.

Now, imagine if automobiles were built like storage systems. You would hire a few automotive engineering consultants, specify basic parameters — number of passengers, cargo space, acceleration, mileage, etc. — and they would then try to come up with a mix of components that meet those requirements. After a few months, the sample parts would arrive. You would then hire a mechanic to assemble them and next spend another couple months testing it out and making adjustments to ensure all the parts work together. If it does what you want – and after a bit more tweaking – you can finally start driving it around.

True, there are significant differences between a SAN and a SUV, but that doesn't mean that storage needs to be as complex an issue as it is currently.

Page 2: Black Box Storage

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