Fibre Channel still rules the SAN

In a red hot year for storage networks, iSCSI still simmered

If you were expecting breathtaking new storage technologies to appear, 2004 was probably a disappointment. But if you were looking for better storage solutions at lower prices, then it was your kind of year.

We saw many of the technologies that emerged in 2003 generate mainstream solutions last year. The technologies were familiar, but some of the names in the enterprise storage market were new. For instance, Rackable Systems -- better known for its innovative, high-density server solutions -- jumped into the midtier storage space with both feet, adding NAS and iSCSI SAN appliances to its product portfolio.

Another newcomer, Apple Computer, which quietly unveiled the Xserve RAID in mid-2003, increased the volume (so to speak) to 3.5TB in summer 2004. A very affordable SAN for the entry-level market, Xserve RAID was one of the first to blend FC transport and SATA drives, now a standard combination.

Another interesting trend in 2004 was storage vendors branching into new spaces. In EMC’s quest to expand revenue sources and open new markets, the company formed a partnership with Dell which produced the Dell/EMC AX100, a price-competitive, lightweight, and likeable SAN solution that earns our Technology of the Year award in its category. Combining FC transport and SATA drives for entry-level customers, the Dell/EMC “SAN in a can” was the most complete single-shelf SAN we reviewed in 2004, edging out worthy competitors such as Apple and nStor.

FC and iSCSI are often pitted as competing choices, and so are SAN and NAS solutions, but Network Appliance resolved both disputes this year with its FAS200 storage appliances, which incorporate all of those features and more in a single, fast, reliable, and exceptionally scalable product.

It’s difficult to put the NetApp FAS270C in one of the traditional storage categories; it’s flexible enough to compete equally well as a filer or as a block-level storage device. We arbitrarily decided to honor its heritage by awarding it Best NAS Solution of 2004.

Interestingly, the FAS270C was also the most successful iSCSI SAN we saw in 2004, rising above a flat performance by other players in the IP-storage arena. Stonefly Networks’ elegant virtualization router was another exception. Anyone who anticipated iSCSI taking the entry-level market by storm in 2004 was forced to eat FC (Fibre Channel), which continued to strengthen its hold on the storage networking market.

The major contributors to FC’s success were the usual culprits: Emulex, which broke the 4Gbps barrier; QLogic, with its innovative SANbox 5200 switch; and Brocade, with its Multiprotocol Router, which bridges multiple SAN islands with aplomb. With so many good FC products, our task to choose a single winner was not easy. In the end, the laurel goes to Brocade’s Multiprotocol Router. If you need it, you need it bad.

Just about every major tape drive technology improved in 2004. Sony SAIT (Super Advanced Intelligent Tape) remained the king of capacity with 500GB on a single reel, but LTO (linear tape open) is hot on Sony’s heels. Toward year-end, Certance and HP released LTO-3 Ultrium drives that can store 400GB per reel at unrivaled speeds (see Product Previews, page 12). Next year we should see enterprise libraries taking advantage of the new drives.

With luck, 2005 will also bring SAS (serial attached SCSI) drives. The results from a December plug-fest, with vendors bringing their prototypes to the Interoperability Lab of the University of New Hampshire under the sponsorship of the SCSI Trade Association, were encouraging. With a similar party scheduled for April, new SAS products probably won’t appear until the end of 2005. They should be worth the wait.