Smart switch for smaller SANs

Maxxan MXV250 brings mirroring, replication, and more to mid-range market

Most SAN administrators are interested in adding more capabilities -- including replication, mirroring, virtualization, FCoIP (Fibre Channel over IP), iSCSI, NAS, and so forth -- to their networks. You can add each of these to a SAN via software or a specialized appliance, or you can get them all in one shot with an intelligent FC switch.

I reviewed the Maxxan MXV320 a couple of years ago and came away impressed. That product, now named the MXV500, is an enterprise-class intelligent switch offering a wide variety of SAN applications, as well as up to 256 switch ports in one chassis or 512 ports in two chassis. It also stands just under three feet high, weighs more than 140 pounds, has redundant everything, requires two 220-volt circuits, and sports a starting price of $100,000.

The MXV250 is the MXV500’s little brother, coming in at about 5U high and 87 pounds with support for 64 ports; it runs on two standard 110-volt circuits. Though it’s smaller, it’s no slouch, lacking only the MXV500’s redundant backplane architecture -- the MXV250’s system control cards, power supplies, and fans are all redundant.

Also like its big brother, the MXV250 boosts functionality with IPStor, FalconStor’s application suite, which Maxxan has ported to its embedded application cards. The IPStor suite includes local and remote synchronous or asynchronous replication, mirroring, virtualization, snapshots, active-active fail-over, NAS, iSCSI, FCoIP, and TimeMark, which provides for scheduled incremental snapshots of a specified volume.

Optional LUN (logical unit number) features round out the MXV250. LUN Masking provides additional security and access control by specifying exactly which hosts can see or access specific storage targets, while LUN remapping allows a specific storage system to be presented as a different LUN number from what the disk subsystem is initially configured with. These are features that not everyone will want, but they do add considerable flexibility.

Dueling Management Apps

Initial configuration of the MXV250 is simple, requiring only a standard serial terminal. Once the network information is set up, the rest of the configuration involves the two management applications, SANCruiser and IPStor, and is done via browser.

SANCruiser is the basic SAN management application that maps the entire SAN and shows each connected device and its associated information. It is used for basic configuration of the FC fabric and for naming, troubleshooting, LUN masking, and so forth.

IPStor is used to configure all of the higher-level functions, such as replication and virtualization. It’s easy to use, with wizards that take you through the process of setting up replicas, snapshots, virtualization, and most of the other high-level functions. Even people who aren’t full-time storage administrators should be able to get what they want out of the system without days of research or training.

The two-application management style is a bit annoying, as admins may need to look through both applications before they find the feature they need to configure. It becomes less problematic over time as you learn the system, though, and other than having to look through both apps, there are no huge downsides to having the two separate applications.

Performance and Virtualization

While I was concerned primarily with testing the functionality of the system, I did test the MXV250’s basic performance by connecting it to two servers and two storage subsystems. The servers were HP DL370s with QLogic QLA2342 2Gb HBAs, one running Windows 2003 Server and the other running Red Hat Linux 3.0.

I established a baseline for performance using IOmeter, first with the two systems connected directly to the two storage units, then connected to the MXV250. I then enabled virtualization and retested. There was more variation from run to run in each scenario than between the three test scenarios, indicating that using virtualization introduced no latency or throughput overhead. With only two systems, I was unable to verify the 320Gbps backplane bandwidth.

I quickly set up replication from one storage array to the other; scheduling asynchronous replication was straightforward, and synchronous replication took little effort. I also tested the snapshot and TimeMark functionality by creating snapshots and then changing files in the original volume. I located the appropriate snapshot and restored deleted or changed files with no problems.

Virtualization presents several different storage systems as one virtual disk or several pieces of one storage array as several different server volumes. Because of the number of decisions that must be made to achieve this -- file systems, naming of virtual storage, presentation form, and so forth -- virtualization is necessarily somewhat complex. The IPStor app, however, does an good job of making the task of setting up virtualization as simple as possible. Its wizards and clean design make the complex process as easy as anyone could expect.

The MXV250 can also be used to present existing FC storage as iSCSI storage, or to enable long-distance replication over the Internet using FCoIP. Both of these features are straightforward to set up and worked well in my tests.

Switching Smarts

The MXV250 is a telco-grade FC switch that can be used to provide a wide array of advanced functions, and it does a very good job. Admins interested in the advanced features who do not want to make the initial investment in an MXV250 or MXV500 should investigate Maxxan’s SA100 and SA110 stand-alone appliances, which offer the same feature set without the switching functionality.

Thanks to the explosion of interest in intelligent storage management, Maxxan is no longer the only vendor offering such capabilities -- Brocade, Cisco, Maranti Networks, McData, Sun, and Troika Networks have all brought out products in this space in the last year or so. However, the MXV250 is a second-generation intelligent switch with solid interoperability, easy configuration, and a broad feature set. It should definitely be on the short list for SAN administrators who would like to move their storage applications to the fabric.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Scalability (25.0%)
Setup (15.0%)
Manageability (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Performance (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Maxxan MXV250 Intelligent Application Switch 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 8.0