EMC finally finds its virtual voice

Invista: switch friendly and not cheap

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EMC has arrived late to the storage virtualization party but, after months of hype, has delivered a product with such a unique set of technology and lofty price tag that it's sure to garner plenty of attention.

Close storage watchers have heard about the kit code-named Storage Router for a long time. Well, as of today, that product is now officially known as the EMC Invista Network Storage Virtualization Platform. Storage Router seemed more concise, but what do we know?

This product collides head-on against Hitachi's virtualized TagmaStore system and IBM's SAN Volume Controller product. All three vendors use a combination of software and hardware to pull off their storage virtualization feats, which include creating abstracted views of all the disk in a storage area network (SAN) and making LUN management easier.

EMC differs from its competitors in that the Invista software runs not just on a specialized server but also on switches from Brocade and Cisco and later McData. By tapping into these so-called intelligent switches, EMC thinks it has an advantage over rivals.

So what exactly is this Invista thing and how does it work?

For the answer, we turn to NetworkWorld's storage star Deni Connor.

"Invista, which translates into 'in sight' in Italian, is an out-of-band appliance built on a dual-node server cluster that connects to a Fibre Channel switch within a SAN. Invista runs software that inspects every packet of data passing from the host computers through the Fibre Channel switch to the storage array. It classifies the data and assigns it a unique identifier so that it can be organized, tracked and managed across a pool of storage resources."

The switches then handle the I/O processing, which could give EMC a raw performance edge over competing products.

Administrators will likely find the LUN management tools to be the best part of the Invista package. Via a GUI, administrators can shift a logical volume from one system to another without shutting down the applications using the volume or shutting down hardware. Similarly, customers will be able to move chunks of data between different arrays easier than before and with no system shutdowns. Want a faster box to handle that database? No problem.

The other virtualization basics are there as well such as increasing the size of a logical volume on-the-fly and using the data abstraction tools to create sophisticated disaster recovery systems.

Can you buy this magic?

Not just yet. EMC is still beta testing this thing, which is a huge disappointment given the months of chatter that has surrounded the product. When Invista does arrive on 30 June, it will work with storage systems from EMC, IBM and Hitachi and servers running AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, Linux and Windows. Customers will have to fork over a minimum of $225,000 to virtualize 64TB of storage. That price includes hardware and software.

EMC reckons its package is 30 percent less than what a customer would pay for "a comparably configured IBM solution." But only a few marketing folks and lawyers have a handle on the higher math needed to make such a comparison. This virtualization stuff is so new, so tricky and so varied that apples to apples measurements are almost impossible.

IBM, while not debating price, did manage a giggle at how long it has taken EMC to produce a product like Invista.

"EMC is in a desperate race to catch up to IBM. As the storage wars heat up between proprietary EMC and open systems champion IBM, the ability to virtualize storage and servers will determine customer acceptance and leadership in the IT market," a spokeswoman said. "In this war, EMC's announcement is akin to bringing a cap gun to a tank battle."

True enough, EMC has tried and failed at storage virtualization before - most notoriously with its WideSky disaster.

But barbs aside, here's how analyst Charles King at Pund-IT puts the new kit in perspective.

"We believe that Invista's non-disruptive support of current replication and other array-based software is a significant point of difference between EMC and its competitors. Both IBM and HDS are expanding the capabilities of their solutions via partnerships, but both require proprietary solutions for essential functions.

"By comparison, EMC's Invista appears to be the first solution to support storage virtualization processes without forcing businesses to make such either/or decisions, a point that we believe is likely to work in the EMC's favor among current and future clients. While some will point out that Invista currently offers fewer functionalities that its more mature rivals, we expect EMC to make up this ground fairly quickly. In addition, Invista provides intriguing cross-promotional opportunities for EMC's switch partners."

King adds that having an EMC-flavored, out-of-band approach gives customers a nice option in the virtualization market.

You can find more on the new product here. ®

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