Compaq Gains on Virtualization

Compaq is quietly enlisting allies for its attack on the virtualization market

June 21, 2001

4 Min Read
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The battle for control of storage networks using virtualization technology is heating up, and PC and server giant Compaq Computer Corp. (NYSE: CPQ) is quietly mustering its forces.

Its latest ally is little-known storage networking startup, Troika Networks whos server cluster “controllers” enable Compaq to claim a first step on the road to a complete virtualization offering (see Top Ten Private
Storage Networking Companies).

So why all this fuss about virtualization? Listening to vendors in this market talk about virtualization strategies is like listening to a politician running for election: “Virtualization, virtualization, virtualization...” It’s analogous to healthcare and education: If you don’t mention it at least three times in every sentence, forget it -- you’ve lost.

In broad terms, virtualization lets IT managers use multiple storage devices as a single, “virtual” pool, rather than manually assigning specific devices to particular purposes. Thus, it enables multiple applications or multiple servers to use any available space on a storage network, irrespectiveof the physical boundaries within the storage pool.

A key benefit of virtualization is that it makes for more efficient use of existing storage by cutting the cost and time involved in managing it. It’s also supposed to improve application reliability and performance and provide more flexible data access for critical applications.The trick to the whole thing is where to perform the virtualization or mapping of the data from one place to another. This is where the battle will commence and where Compaq, in particular, is staking out ground.

The server vendors love virtualization, as it can be located on the application host; the switch vendors claim it is a natural function of traffic management within the storage network; and the storage device manufacturers say it must obviously be located where the storage resides.

Compaq meanwhile, is quietly infiltrating all three fronts.

Since June of last year, the company has been developing its "VersaStor" technology, which will provide block-level virtualization through a dedicated appliance on the SAN, says Mark Sorenson, VP of storage software and solutions for Compaq's enterprise storage group. To maximize portability across operating systems, Compaq's technical strategy is to utilize the existing paradigm -- whereby the operating system "thinks" it is writing to a physical disk -- while mapping to the virtual storage pool is handled by the VersaStor technology and appliance.

This appliance will map the logical storage to its physical location, calculate how to automatically move data within the SAN storage pool, and send the latest versions of the mapping tables to “agents” that will use these mapping tables to store and retrieve data.The virtualization agents are pieces of software that reside on the hosts, in SAN switches, and in host bus adapters (HBAs). The agents must be in all three places for Compaq's virtualization to take place. Although Compaq's plan naturally anticipates Compaq servers, IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has signed up to support VersaStor, too.

Enter Troika Networks with a new type of HBA it calls a “controller” that plugs into the server and enables server clustering on one end, while feeding into the VersaStor SAN appliance on the other. Troika is adding Compaq’s VersaStor agent into the firmware of its controller so that all the servers within a Troika cluster can talk to the VersaStor appliance. QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC) is doing the same with its HBAs, and Sorensen expects Emulex Corp. (Nasdaq: EMLX) to announce its support for the agent any day now.

Compaq’s next step is to convince the SAN switch vendors, mainly Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), to support the agent. McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDT), the number two player behind Brocade, has already signed up. The goal is to enable the VersaStor appliance to talk to the storage devices via the SAN switch.

“All the major Fibre Channel switch makers are looking at it,” Sorensen claims, although he isn’t permitted to name them yet.

The upshot is: Don’t hold your breath. There are still several pieces that need to be put in place for this strategy to work. For one, the storage devices themselves must also support the agent. The first VersaStor-based products were originally planned for the end of this year but are now not expected to ship until the second quarter
of 2002.Nevertheless, Wall Street likes the sound of it.

”We are most bullish on Compaq’s storage strategy with its VersaStor technology,” said Thomas Kraemer, Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.’s, chief storage analyst during his report on the storage market this week (see Merrill Lynch Sizes Up Network Storage).

Gartner/Dataquest market share numbers released today put Compaq as the number one supplier of storage area networks, based on 2000 sales. The research firm reports that with more than 24,000 units shipped last year, Compaq sold more SAN-attached storage systems than its six nearest competitors combined, accounting for a 48.5 percent market share.

The real fuss, of course, is over the amount of money resting on this market. Morgan Keegan & Company Inc., a financial investment firm, expects the SAN virtualization software market to exceed $1 billion by 2003.

— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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