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Converged IT stacks threaten storage interfaces

Vertical optimisation could oust layered standard interfaces

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Comment In a world of converged IT stacks the standard interfaces on which external storage depends are threatened.

External storage depends upon standard interfaces: Ethernet and NFS/CIFS/TCP/IP for filers and iSCSI and Fibre Channel for block access. We have a layered approach to connecting servers and external storage, and also servers and networking resources. This layering supports and encourages multi-vendor creativity within the layers but limits optimisation. That is made easier if you have a vertically integrated stack.

What NetApp can do with one stack - Data Ontap and its commodity-based hardware - several other vendors do with multiple products. HDS, EMC, Dell etc have separate block and file access products, such as EMC's CLARRiON and Celerra lines.

The two main IT stack convergers, Cisco and HP, are competing with each other, but are also up against the non-converged IT stack vendors, who push their best-of breed products at each layer of the stack.

HP has the most integrated and converged IT stack offering in its in-house product set: ProLiant servers integrated with ProCurve networking and StorageWorks drive arrays. Soon all the drive arrays will likely be HP servers running array control software. Cisco has had to cut a deal with EMC to get its storage, and the integration possibilities there could well be limited by EMC's need to continue selling the bulk of its storage products to connect to multi-vendor non-converged server+networking+storage IT Stacks.

Not so HP.

It can start integrating servers, storage and networking far more closely because it owns technologies in all three areas, and because a large proportion of the sales of each technology area are to HP's own customers. If HP can optimise the efficiency, performance and costs of its Matrix converged IT stack so it offers clear benefits to HP customers that are not possible with the Cisco California stack, or with the non-converged stacks, then HP will hoover up lots and lots of enterprise IT data centre dollars.

Cisco will find itself forced to answer this, and so will the two other main system/server vendors, Dell and IBM, and lesser suppliers such as Fujitsu. If they perceive that optimising vertically offers a greater pay-off than continuing to optimise across separated layers then that's what they will do.

In fact IBM is already doing some of this to an extent. Its VDS, Virtual Disk System, is an integration of DS300 and DS5000 array and its SAN Volume Controller, which itself is an IBM X server running IBM's own software. Its SONAS product is also a combination aka integration of IBM's own technologies. Suppose VDS was further integrated and included as part of a bladed IBM server offering?

HP and the others could take the view that, when you're mixing and combining bladed and virtualised servers, storage and networking in a single rack, then using multiple storage networking protocols and connection media meant for LAN and campus distances is a waste of resources. Why have both iSCSI and Fibre Channel? It's all Ethernet. Why have both iSCSI and FCoE? It's all block access and data centre Ethernet does not lose packets, so we can cut TCP/IP out of the equation and get rid of iSCSI. Why waste server cycles - or adapter cycles - wrapping data in networking protocol wrappers that there really isn't a need for?

Direct-attach storage is used for both block and file access across a single wire. Look at a Matrix or a California rack and it's easy to make the jump to thinking that all the storage in it is basically direct-attach storage. So directly attach it and share it with an extended PCIe fabric - all the servers have PCIe anyway.

Another advantage that would incline converged IT stack vendors to optimise vertically is that doing so could be the thin end of a very satisfactory wedge. If they integrate and optimise vertically and thereby get specific advantages then the competitor attach rate in their accounts will fall. Would HP like a storage optimisation strategy that has the additional benefit of decreasing the EMC and NetApp attach rate in its accounts? Of course it would. Ditto Cisco/EMC.

I'm not saying this will happen. But there will be those within the engineering and strategy shops of converged IT stack vendors that argue that optimising vertically will give the vendor more benefit bangs for each optimising buck, and that it will cut the competitor attach rate. What's not to like about either?

Of course vertical optimising supporters will say they support the standard interfaces, but they'll also say that if you use this special technology they've developed then you'll use 10 per cent less electricity per year, need 10 per cent fewer servers, and can run 10 per cent more virtual machines. Wouldn't you like to cut your annual total cost of ownership by 30 per cent? Can't you just see this sort of messaging coming out?

If this happens then stand-alone networking, storage and server vendors will be out in the cold, unable to sell to data centres moving to converged IT stacks. None of this is going to happen for several years, but we at El Reg reckon it probably will. ®

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