More virtualization hits the switch

Startup Incipient to launch new block virtualization software for Cisco switches

It went by rather quietly, but iNSP (Incipient Network Storage Platform), a new block virtualization solution that the startup Incipient recently announced at Storage Decisions in New York, is probably one of the most important releases in recent storage news.

There is no want of solutions in that space -- making an impromptu, comprehensive list of block virtualization products is a challenge for anybody. I'll mention EMC Invista, Hitachi TagmaStore, and IBM SAN Volume Controller just to define the territory, but the complete list is obviously much longer.

However, iNSP is the first (and for now only) storage virtualization software that resides entirely inside an intelligent switch module. That's an architectural difference from competing products that run on arrays or ancillary appliances.

This first version of iNSP should start shipping before winter hits. It runs on Cisco Storage Service Module. Incipient plans to extend future versions to director-class switches from Brocade as well as mid-tier products.

"[With this version] we are targeting customers with 70TB of storage or more," says Robert Infantino, senior vice president of marketing and alliances for Incipient.

Replacing a storage array in those environments can take months, Infantino explains, which translates into additional costs such as overlapping leases and extended maintenance contracts. iNSP block virtualization capabilities can shorten that migration time significantly by making data migration to a different storage array transparent to your applications.

Obviously that also cuts the migration cost, which should resonate well with your CFO and can be an effective way to cost-justify a block virtualization product. But that's not the only benefit, nor one that's exclusive to iNSP: "We offer the same feature set of host-based volume managers, striping concatenation, partitioning and mirroring," Infantino adds.

That's good to know, but what makes iNSP particularly appealing in this crowded and much-debated segment is the ability to automate recurring storage provisioning tasks with templates that classify storage according to applications' demands.

For example, a template for a critical and frequently touched Oracle database would specify allocating a volume over multiple fast FC drives and taking frequent snapshots. By contrast, a template for an archive copy of the same database would use less-expensive SATA drives and prescribe no snapshots.

To see what the iNSP GUI looks like and get a glimpse of some of its features, check out this screenshot.

Another advantage is that iNSP virtualized volumes can be safely and quickly copied to a different location at any time, removing the need for planned downtime and making it possible to run storage optimization tasks concurrently with live applications.

What happens to existing volumes when you install iNSP? "We have a feature called encapsulation that maps physical LUNs to virtual LUNs," Infantino says. "After that you can do whatever you want with them."

Block virtualization metadata becomes a critical point of failure, but Incipient takes an interesting approach to protecting metadata from array failures that includes backup and restore capabilities from the GUI, three-way mirroring, and the flexibility to allocate multiple independent repositories.

For those worried about whether virtualization will cause a SAN performance penalty, Incipient doesn’t think it will be a problem. "One of our beta sites measured the I/O [rate] to a virtual LUN and to a regular LUN and there was no performance degradation whatsoever," Infantino says.

Incipient's new block virtualization software comes with an intriguing promise of delivering flexible, highly automated storage management that shouldn't be ignored. Moreover, its clearly defined price -- $137,000 for each SSM plus $45,000 to add snapshots -- should simplify customers' cost-benefit analysis.

iNSP's launch is a good opportunity to reconsider block virtualization. With the current abundance of solutions, the only certain mistake one can make is to ignore storage virtualization altogether.

Join me on The Storage Network with questions or comments.

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