A Big Brocade FAN

Say hello to a distributed storage platform that promises to slash administrative overhead and provide seamless file access for end-users, even during a disaster.
A File Area Network, or FAN, basically describes a method of sharing files across a network using file servers or NAS boxes. For example, you could aggregate file systems within a data center in order to manage them centrally. While there are various ways to achieve this, the general method is to set up a global namespace that sits above the level of the individual devices.

StorageX from Brocade Communications Systems Inc. of San Jose, CA, for example, uses global namespace technology to unify file storage from multiple servers, appliances and NAS devices utilizing Microsoft Distributed File System (DFS). The technology is currently implemented as software installed on the servers and NAS boxes. Brocade prefers this approach as it operates out of band via agents running on the file servers.

The result is that the administrator can move around files with greater ease or perform administrative functions without the end users being affected. Even though the physical location of their files may have changed, end users continue to have access to them without being aware of the shift.

This technology makes sense to anyone who has deployed more than a handful of NAS or file servers in one data center. As each box has its own file system, network connection, etc., adding another device requires duplicate installation, set up and maintenance functions. According to Philippe Nicolas, technology evangelist for file area network (FAN) solutions at Brocade, this also causes problems such as one server being fully utilized while others sit idle. And it is cumbersome to move files from one to another.

Further, reconfiguring file systems or making them available elsewhere in the event of a disaster eats up valuable administrative time and effort. Such issues are solved by adding a logical layer (via a global namespace) between clients and file systems. Therefore, activities like server administration, files reorganization or consolidation can be accomplished without the user noticing anything different. It’s business as usual from an end user perspective.

Brocade, of course, is a fan of the traditional FAN as covered above. But it offers several other FAN products. As well as its StorageX solution, it classifies Wide Area File Services (WAFS) as being under the FAN umbrella.

“FAN embraces Wide Area File Services (WAFS) technology,” says Nicolas. “A FAN can encompass all the file servers within one data center, or can include WAFS within its perimeter to manage files being accessed by remote offices.”

Most vendors, he says, only offer one of these, i.e. they either have a WAFS or a traditional FAN product. Brocade, on the other hand, provides both elements. According to Nicolas, therefore, his company provides a more full-featured FAN than its rivals. This is accomplished via a unified interface that ties together Brocade WAFS with its StorageX FAN software.

WAFS is utilized to manage files in a central repository that are then swiftly and easily accessible by remote offices. This eliminates the need to erect small data centers throughout a distributed enterprise, and can do away with the requirement of having an IT person working at each branch office. Instead, everything is maintained at head office.

Brocade WAFS simplifies branch IT office services and optimizes WAN file traffic so it doesn’t take ages to access files residing on central servers. The idea is to provide LAN-like responses over the WAN. This is accomplished via a pair of appliances – one at headquarters and the other appliances at branch offices.

Hot Area

The FAN, then, has become a hot area in the storage landscape. Over the past two years most of the innovative but small WAFS vendors were gobbled up by the big boys. Similarly, the traditional FAN players have been acquired by the likes of Brocade, Cisco and EMC. That leaves only Acopia Networks Inc. of Lowell, MA, and Attune Systems Inc. of Santa Clara, as the remaining FAN vendors.

“When you see the big vendors acquiring smaller innovators, you know that a major market need is being served,” says Nicolas. “Brocade is about a year ahead of the pack in bringing both sides of the FAN spectrum together.”

Storage analyst firm Taneja Group of Hopkinton, MA, agrees. It sees the FAN market as being a fast growing sector in the coming years as it fills a gulf that block-level storage can’t address.

“A FAN is ultimately about applying business-level controls and intelligence to files,” says Brad O’Neil, an analyst at Taneja Group. “This was not possible with block-level data that is necessarily void of business- or application-level context.”

This article was first published on EnterpriseITPlanet.com.





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