Virtualisation: the next big resource?

Unquestionably, virtualisation is a hot topic that has attracted a lot of interest from both big and small players in the storage arena. As the complexities of storage infrastructures increase, customers are beginning to realise the need for additional hardware and software that will help them be more productive for less expense.

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By  Peter Branton Published  February 27, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|Unquestionably, virtualisation is a hot topic that has attracted a lot of interest from both big and small players in the storage arena. As the complexities of storage infrastructures increase, customers are beginning to realise the need for additional hardware and software that will help them be more productive for less expense. Virtualisation became one of the more attractive alternatives, not only because it fits the required profile, but also because it opened new business opportunities for vendors. Virtualisation, as a technology, is aimed at maximising a company’s storage resources. It compiles the available storage elements into a single logical storage pool, so despite having multiple storage disks, for example, users see it only as one storage system. It does the process in the background to isolate the intricate details involved, thereby saving customers the physical complexities of storage management. “Virtualisation is a tool that solves issues that traditional storage technology cannot solve. It’s a layer that helps customers function as easy and as fast as possible, without going into the complication of the details,” says Ashraf Helmy, StorageWorks product marketing manager, HP Middle East. “Without virtualisation, companies are only going to use roughly 50% of their storage resources. But with virtualisation, they can increase that usage to up to 80%,” adds Paul Ransted, a business technologist at Computer Associates Middle East. It was first implemented on the server or host. Host-based virtualisation involves the formation of logical volume managers or virtual disks, which points to the physical storage. It gave companies the freedom to choose any storage device, allowing applications to remain online while file systems and volume sizes are adjusted. However, given the processing efforts involved, it consumes a lot of CPU cycles. In addition, virtualisation must be administered on each server. Vendors then migrated the technology to the array. This storage-based strategy was able to lower the usage of processing power and proved it to be more easy to manage. On the downside, this approach is proprietary, meaning customers were locked into a single storage vendor because one vendor’s array could not be replicated to another’s. The third and most recent development in the storage industry is the network-based approach. In response to proprietary issues, storage intelligence was moved away from the server and the array and was positioned at the network. Often referred to as the SAN- (storage area networking) based virtualisation, the technology is embedded in networking switches or routers, allowing storage resource management to be executed within the network itself. ||**||The right fit |~||~||~|Because of these various approaches, the market is currently swamped with products that come under different names and guises. Computer Associates has Vtape, a virtual tape solution that allows customers to optimise and manage their tape resources. It has also worked with third-party entities to produce several virtualisation solutions for its BrightStor range, including StoreAge’s Storage Virtualisation Manager. Meanwhile, HP has developed a virtualisation solution that coincides with its Adaptive Enterprise strategy. Called StorageWorks, it is composed of so-called “smart cells” that take on multiple storage functions. Each cell is loaded with its own front-end processors, disk and storage device, and can be assigned different software personalities, which can be loaded dynamically depending on what the company demands are. Hitachi Data Systems and Sun both offer virtualisation support to EMC’s storage range with their TagmaStore Universal Storage Platform and Sun StorEdge, respectively. IBM has SAN Volume Control and SAN File System. On top of that, the market can expect to see upgrades and new launches in the next few months. For instance, according to Said Akar, technical account manager for the UAE and Oman for EMC Middle East, his company is planning to launch a turnkey storage network virtualisation device called the Storage Router in the second quarter of 2005. The router is the result of an almost year long collaboration between the storage vendor, which is providing the software that manages the network virtualisation, and networking vendors Cisco, Brocade and McData, which will supply next-generation switches. Not to be outdone, IBM has upgraded its TotalStorage SAN Volume Controller (SVC) storage virtualisation. Version 2.1.1,which will be available on the 25 March, lets SVC connect to X86 servers running Windows NT, 2000 or 2003, as well as Red Hat’s Linux Advanced Server and Novell’s SUSE Linux 8 and NetWare. Even the open source community has joined in the virtualisation fray. This month, at LinuxWorld, the community unveiled a virtualisation product called Xen, which is the open source version of EMC’s VMWare, where VMWare is EMC’s virtualisation infrastructure in the x86 space. ||**||Muddy waters |~||~||~|As the technology gradually scales up the mainstream adoption ladder, its popularity is also becoming more of a quandary. The topic of storage virtualisation has often triggered debates within the industry, primarily because the technology means different things to different vendors. Over time, the real essence of virtualisation has been diluted mainly because vendors — in their quest to rework the technology to suit their needs — have somehow muddied the waters when it comes to defining it. “The vendors themselves are the cause of the confusion, mainly because each one defines virtualisation based on the features the company offers,” says Helmy. “Everyone defines the technology depending on the product that fits his own portfolio.” “Virtualisation is a big buzzword. The complete vision of virtualisation does not exist. We just have the bits and pieces here and there,” admits Akar. Heini Booysen, program manager for IDC Middle East and North Africa, blames all the confusion on a lack of awareness. He says vendors have not put much effort into getting a definition out and explaining what pluses it can do for companies. Market confusion over the technology is also compounded by the fact that there are no defined standards as yet. The closest the technology has come to standardisation has been through the efforts of the SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association), which has created a taxonomy of basic virtualisation concepts and associations. But apart from that, little has been done to push any virtualisation policies. “The concept is attractive in its simplicity, but the implementation raises vexing problems. There is no agreement on where virtualisation should occur. In addition, there are almost no standard interfaces. Although highly desirable, virtualisation, in practice, has turned out to be far from simple,” adds Ransted. In spite of the fact that a majority of the storage players are involved in some way with the SNIA, the industry is still divided. The vendors are not yet ready to take it to the next level. For fear of losing their competitive edge, they have remained “proprietary” about their virtualisation strategies. “There aren’t a lot of industry standards for virtualisation. There are a few, but do all the vendors agree with the same standards? No, they don’t because they’re going for different things. That’s the problem,” says Ransted. “There needs to be [more standards], but I don’t see it in the immediate future. To create standards, you need to involve a lot of consolidation in the market.” Mohamed El-Shanawany, storage sales manager for IBM Middle East, agrees. “The fact that the implementations are different is one of the reasons why it’s not yet time to form virtualisation standards,” he says. Consequently, the current lack of standards has also led to issues of interoperability, according to Booysen. “The lack of standards is a problem. As with any other technology, if there’s a lack of standards you are going to have customers who won’t buy into it. As soon as we have a more standardised approach, there will be more interoperability between vendors. You will find virtualisation becoming more prevalent,” he adds. Booysen believes that as the technology matures, vendors will start to open up to competition in order to make sure their products work with each other. “There are very few vendors that have a whole product suite. The only way to make sure that their customers are happy is to become partners with other vendors,” he explains. While the debate continues, storage vendors have to make do with whatever standards and certifications are on offer. According to El-Shanawany, all of IBM’s storage products adhere to the SNIA’s Storage Management Initiative Specification, which monitors and manages all storage-related systems. Companies wishing to adopt a virtualisation approach, on the other hand, should look for “openness” when choosing a vendor, El-Shanawany advises. “For now, what customers should look at in a virtualisation solution is whether it works with products from different vendors or not,” advises El-Shanawany. “They should look for openness and whether or not the solution supports the SNIA standards.” “If you want to implement a working virtualisation strategy, there are four things you have to consider: performance scalability, value-added functionality, manageability, and support,” Akar adds. ||**||The benefits|~||~||~|When the industry eventually agrees on standards and manages to eliminate vendor lock-in, storage virtualisation promises to deliver a number of significant benefits for both the customers and vendors. For the enterprise, it holds the key to better disk utilisation, tiered storage, consolidated data services and centralised management. For the vendors, storage virtualisation will most likely turn into one of the industry’s cash cows, with IDC predicting that the storage resource management market — to which storage virtualisation is a sub-segment — is expected to grow by 15.4% in 2008, in a market estimated to be worth US$4.54 billion. Here in the Gulf, the same market is valued to be at US$35.9 million. “Virtualisation is becoming a very important market sector. It will definitely become one of the key components of any comprehensive enterprise network,” says Booysen. ||**||

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