SAN in the spotlight as demand for data increases

Four years ago at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, vendors offering SAN (storage area network) hardware, software and services had a muted presence, with four companies exhibiting ten products on the show floor.

This year, more than 70 companies were exhibiting over 300 SAN products and services, demonstrating the massive growth that storage area networking has witnessed in the last few years.

A SAN is a network or subnetwork that interconnects different kinds of data storage devices with a data server.

“Four years ago we were evangelizing SAN technology. Today it has become a profitable and financially viable market,” said Skip Jones, chairman of the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA) in a speech on the Comdex floor last month. “It took five years of market maturation, but it was worth the wait,” he said, adding that SANs have finally arrived as an industry.

And as the demand for data grows, be it via wireless services or the Internet, the demand for effective data storage and SANs will keep growing, according to Jones.

“At a time when storage is exploding, IT managers are asking questions like ‘How do I store and manage tons and tons of data?’ SANs solve data storage and dissemination problems,” Jones said, stressing the Internet and its worldwide presence played a major role in the emergence of SANs.

Servers on a storage area network communicate using different technologies, but many vendors have adopted the new Fibre Channel technology, because it allows high-bandwidth, low-latency data transfer.

SAN-using-Fibre-Channel is a perfect plug-and-play technology, according to Jones, as it is based on open standards that include IP (Internet Protocol) and FCP (Fibre Channel Protocol), which make it highly interoperable.

“Fibre Channel does not compare to Ethernet – it is not for desktops or low-end networks,” he said.

It took time for the Fibre Channel technology to mature, Jones said. Though development of the Fibre Channel standards started alongside that of SCSI (small computer systems interface) standards, they took time to flower. And as standards development for Fibre Channels progressed, more companies joined in developing and furthering SAN technologies.

Today, servers on a Fibre Channel SAN can transfer data between servers at up to 2Gbps. In comparison, UltraSCSI, the latest incarnation of the SCSI specification, supports maximum data transfer rates of 160Mbps.

The speed of data throughput over Fibre Channel is expected to reach 4.5Gbps by 2002 and 127Gbps by the end of 2010, said Jones.

The SAN industry – worth just US$5 million in 1998 – is expected to be worth US$3 billion by 2001, and US$7 billion by 2004, Jones said. A big chunk of the SAN revenue will come from the sale of network hardware – a segment that has accounted for just 25 per cent of storage vendor EMC Corp.’s SAN sales so far this year.

SANs beat LANs for storage applications because of their highly scalable architecture, said Jones. Firstly, he said Fibre Channel-based SANs can stretch across the planet, unlike a LAN, which is limited to a certain geographical area. Secondly, LANs can handle only a limited data load, thus concentrating the processing and data load on the file server.

The highly scalable architecture of a SAN means processing, storage and dissemination of data can be dispersed over a series of servers, Steve Bishop, chief technology of WorldStor Inc., said in his presentation at Comdex on SAN implementation.

SANs deployed over large geographical areas can be broken up into RSNs (regional storage networks) – storage network islands hosted on secure server hosting facilities, said Jones. RSNs are connected to one another by either a special network or the Internet.

SANs also allow “zoning”, or breaking up storage by department, and allowing a certain group of users to access certain data, he said.

On a lighter note, Jones said SAN technology could potentially reduce problems for a company’s human resources department. “SAN reduces the need to hire people to solve storage problems,” he said, eliciting a giggle or two from the audience.

The Fibre Channel Industry Association, based in San Francisco, can be reached at (415) 750-8355 or on the Web at