Current storage trends
If there's one overriding trend in enterprise storage, it's the fact that you're going to store more data next year than you did this year. And with IDC saying we'll be stashing 0.988 zettabytes next year, the numbers are, frankly, freakish (a zettabyte is a million million terabytes).
With this in mind, the trends at the heart of enterprise storage are surprising: here, the specialist solution is giving way to the standard, and the benefits of highly tuned, thoroughbred architectures pall in comparison with ideas that, not so long ago, seemed almost contemptibly inappropriate.
Ethernet vs Fibre Channel
Fibre Channel has more than 20 years of being the network designed purely for storage. It has supercomputer heritage, it had a head-start on gigabit speeds and it's thoroughly established in Storage Area Networks (SANs), where it moves things around swiftly and efficiently, allowing you to manage your storage with exquisite precision.
Ethernet had a messy childhood, coming up through personal computers and innumerable standards battles.
Ethernet, by contrast, had a messy childhood, coming up through personal computers and innumerable standards battles. It wasn't deterministic and it wasn't particularly robust, but it sacrificed being very good at one thing for being just about OK at many. Which made it good for Network Attached Storage (NAS), which looks like the sort of PC network that accepted all the inefficiencies of being strung together with high-level protocols.
Then two things happened. First, driven by its widespread use in the internet, Ethernet got better and easier to use, and the economics for using it to glue everything together became unanswerable. Second, Fibre Channel learned to work with Ethernet, with FCoE (Fibre Channel over Ethernet).
Now, 10Gbps Ethernet is more efficient at moving data than 8Gbps Fibre Channel. Because of differences in the way they code the data they carry, 10Gbps Ethernet can carry a real throughput of 9.7Gpbs, whereas 8Gbps Fibre Channel can only manage 6.8Gbps. So Ethernet can carry all of that 8Gbps Fibre Channel data plus three lots of 1Gbps non-storage traffic, on one physical link. And it can use the same infrastructure as the rest of your datacentre.
So the trend is in Ethernet's favour, as is the way that per-port costs are falling for the upstart technology. Look at what Brocade is doing with devices like its VDX 6720 Data Center Switches — melding virtual switching, 10Gbps Ethernet and FCoE into one simplified fabric that looks to the network like a single switch. That's a big statement for a company with a hefty market share in Fibre-Channel SANs.
Block vs file
Talking of old battles, how about SAN's blocks versus NAS's files? SAN is the incumbent in the datacentre, with NAS coming in from the outside world.
Traditionally, if you wanted a high-performance storage system, you built it as a SAN with its own dedicated network, you optimised it and you relied on the high levels of reliability and efficiency guaranteed by the vendors. All that's still true, but it requires a high level of expertise — often about a particular vendor's product line. It also becomes difficult to manage in a highly virtualised system.
NAS moves more intelligence to the storage system, making it easier to manage and share in a very dynamic environment where multiple virtual servers make complex demands. It's easier to scale up, and it handles storage entities as files and directories, which makes for easier automated backups, mirrors and so on. It's also a natural for IP networks.
Many established datacentres will be using a mix of NAS and SAN, and a generation of SAN experts will be around for a while. But the trend is towards NAS, as once again the workable, flexible technology uses market clout to break in.
Big or not so big?
So, does this move towards consolidation around concepts common outside the datacentre affect the future of vendors? It does. The same basic forces that are pushing commodity ideas into enterprise storage have already worked their magic in other markets.
In PC processors, it's down to one company and a second placer, after all sorts of niche markets that once supported technically superior designs sunk beneath the waves. Even the supercomputer world feels the pull towards that monoculture.
Already in enterprise storage, the rush towards consolidation, and the disinclination among many buyers to purchase anything that doesn't come from the biggest of big guns, has led to HP and Dell locking horns over who got to marry 3Par — with a huge premium attaching to its price tag as a result. HP walked up the aisle there, but Dell has recently named the day for a match with Compellent.
Meanwhile, Oracle knows that, as it stands, it's not up there with the leaders; however, its strategy in buying Sun and settling disputes with NetApp shows where it's minded to go.