New contender for storage management

When thinking about enterprise storage, most people think of mainframes and large Unix systems. But storage software vendors are building a future for storage that takes into account a relative newcomer in the field, Linux. A few years ago, Linux was easy to dismiss as a “wannabe” in the field of enterprise computing. But since big-time vendors, including IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., have jumped on the open-source bandwagon, the OS has matured appreciably by incorporating features, such as greater scalability and a journaling file system, that make it more appropriate for enterprise environments.

Although it’s no longer possible to be skeptical about the future of Linux as a platform for serious business computing at least in the server room – desktops are another story altogether – plenty of room for growth remains in the use of Linux systems for enterprise storage.

The numbers from the 2003 InfoWorld Storage Survey bear this out. Measuring by the mean number of terabytes hosted on survey respondents’ systems, a naysayer might be tempted to point out that Linux tied for second to last place (with “other” operating systems) and placed just ahead of servers running one or more Apple-branded OSes. But look at the finishing order: IBM Corp. OS/400 systems hosted 66TB on average, Windows NT/2000 servers connected to 43TB, and Unix servers were right behind at 41TB. These numbers aren’t that surprising, even though Windows NT/2000 is fairly new to enterprise computing. After all, it’s the only one of the three OSes that has a credible presence on Intel-based servers, notwithstanding Sun’s off-again, on-again position regarding Solaris for x86 systems.

The group immediately behind the payoff ponies is the attention getter. IBM OS/390 and NetWare nearly tied for our respondents at 19TB – with the mainframe OS leading by a nose of just 160GB. Linux and other OSes tied at almost 11.5TB, with Apple Computer Inc. bringing up the rear with 9TB connected on average.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that Linux can easily vault from sixth to fourth place in these standings in another year or two. Linux has more perceived momentum — or mindshare – in the enterprise than either the dethroned king of LAN computing or the dinosaur of the mainframe world.

Equally interesting is the capacity that respondents listed for each OS. The largest report for “other” OSes was a mere 80TB; Apple and OS/390, 100TB each; Linux, 250TB; NetWare, 300TB; Unix, 500TB; OS/400, 600TB; and Windows NT/2000, a whopping 3000TB. This is less an indicator of how scalable a particular OS is and more of how inexpensive hard drives have become; but it still shows the upstart Linux comparing favorably with environments that have been in production use for a decade or more.

Of course, not everyone is embracing Linux with equal fervor. Some of the biggest players in enterprise storage software – notably HP, IBM, and Sun – also have lucrative franchises selling high-end systems that run proprietary forms of Unix. They seem to be pigeonholing Linux into the role of a management platform – not that this approach is without its benefits.

After all, one of the advantages Windows has over Linux is the wide assortment of tools vendors have developed over the years for managing devices and systems from a Windows desktop. Although browser-based tools are always popular, purpose-built utilities usually present a superior selection of controls and monitors. Some storage management vendors are recognizing that their customers’ willingness to loosen the chains that bind them to Microsoft offers a unique opportunity for them to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Consider Veritas Software Corp., which has the advantage of not being in the hardware business and thus not having any particular OS constituency to coddle. In many ways, Veritas treats Linux as an equal player to more established OSes , and as a result, one has to look carefully to determine whether a management utility is being run on Linux, Windows, or a proprietary Unix.

More importantly, by fitting their wares to run seamlessly no matter what the underlying OS happens to be, vendors following the Veritas approach make life easier for their customers. It’s simpler to address the No. 1 storage priority of survey respondents – optimizing disk usage across business applications and servers, cited by 45 per cent — when you can run the same tools across platforms, both in the server room and in the operations center.

The obvious benefits of cross-platform commonality also hold true for other concerns of survey respondents, notably using more flexible storage technologies (33 per cent), consolidating storage onto fewer device types (27 per cent), and reducing the number of management consoles needed in the course of a day’s work (24 per cent). Of course, other priorities survey respondents mentioned – reducing capital and operating expenditures (42 percent), cutting backup and restore time (32 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively), and increasing storage bandwidth (34 per cent) – are headaches driven more by the hardware than by software. Nevertheless, these more intractable problems can be mitigated by adopting products built to operate in a variety of environments than by applying issue-specific remedies.

Linux is growing up and growing into a role as a platform for enterprise storage services. The question is not whether it will become as important as more established environments but when. Our money is on sooner than you think.

Although enterprise IT managers are likely to choose more traditional platforms for connecting to storage, the upstart OS is poised to become the management platform of choice.


Linux as a storage platform

Executive Summary: Linux can play an important role in addressing the need to consolidate resources and reduce expenses, but only if vendors supply the necessary tools.

Test Center Perspective: Although enterprise IT managers are likely to choose more traditional platforms for connecting to storage, the upstart OS is poised to become the management platform of choice.