The Top 10 Storage Inventions of All Time

Over 20 years on, it's time to take stock of what - and who - has most influenced storage IT

June 7, 2008

13 Min Read
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Do you know who invented the first Fibre Channel SAN? How about the first RAID unit? The first NAS? The first data de-duplication device?

We didn't either, until we did some research. What we found was more than we bargained for: The history of storage networking doesn't just demonstrate one of most interesting offshoots of modern IT. It also traces the growth of the digital underpinnings of modern life.

Consider where the Internet would be without storage networking and data protection -- or where X-rays would be stored for today's burgeoning populations or how movies would be created using special effects.

Usually the dark, dreary months of winter are chosen for this kind of historical review. But we at Byte and Switch felt that spring, the season of renewal and fresh starts, was a more apt choice.

It's also time, we felt, for the kind of shot in the arm this meditation brings. When budgets are down, funding is short, and jobs are scarce and insecure, it can't hurt to look back at the chain of success that has brought storage networking to its present status. When you look at the record, it's clear the storage industry isn't going anywhere but up.Each of the inventions included in this list, presented in no particular order, was chosen on the basis of its importance in advancing data storage and its role in the evolution of storage networking technology overall.

So read on and enjoy. We welcome your input via message board, email, or carrier pigeon. (Just kidding: The phone is OK too!)

The List:

Next Page: The Fibre Channel SAN

The storage area network concept grew up in the wake of Fibre Channel's establishment as the basis of enterprise storage networking. The term SAN came from LAN, or local area network. The concept was that an Ethernet- or Token Ring-like connectivity scheme would be used to share data stored across multiple hosts.The first Fibre Channel SANs appeared circa 1994, the year when the ANSI standards body approved the version of FC that started the full-scale market evolution of storage networking. Prior to that, Fibre Channel had been in the works as a technology since 1985.

While HP, IBM, and Sun were the largest vendors to develop Fibre Channel and promote its standardization, initial enabling products -- namely, switches -- emerged from third parties. Among these were Ancor Communications, which produced Fibre Channel products as proprietary offerings as early as 1988 and was a founding member of the ANSI committee that eventually standardized Fibre Channel. Ancor was bought by QLogic in 2000. Other early purveyors included Gadzoox Networks, which filed for Chapter 11 in 2002 and later sold its assets to Broadcom; Vixel (later sold in parts to Emulex and Fujitsu); as well as a startup called Brocade, whose strength in Fibre Channel switches helped force the other startups into various exit strategies.

Pundits have long speculated about the future of FC SANs, with particular debate about how iSCSI may or may not displace it. At least one analyst sees no slowdown in the technology, even though it continues to morph: "Fibre Channel will continue to do quite well, assuming FCOE comes in on time," says Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group consultancy. Fibre Channel over Ethernet has become the rallying cry for suppliers looking to preserve customers' investment in their FC wares, while reducing the amount of cabling required to do so. While Taneja sees Ethernet eventually becoming the de facto common fabric throughout the data center, he thinks it's not going to displace FC in any sizeable way for at least three to five years.

Next Page: RAID

Few storage inventions can compare with RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) for significance and impact. The concept of replicating data across multiple spinning disks to streamline I/O and increase system efficiency revolutionized data storage and is the foundation of all storage virtualization to date.Begun as a project at the University of California at Berkeley in 1987, RAID had its roots in mainframe disk mirroring originally patented by IBM. Big Blue was instrumental in popularizing the technique, as were Compaq, EMC, and Data General.

RAID has evolved over time to provide various iterations of redundancy and reliability for storage systems. A relatively recent development is RAID 6, which allows recovery from not one but two drive failures.

RAID chips and controllers continue to evolve for improved performance: Case in point are recent silicon announcements that feature links to SAS drives. (See ATTO Integrates RAID Adapter and Acme Packet Reports Q1.) RAID technology has also been a factor in development of MAID (massive array of idle disks), the concept of powering down disks that aren't being used that was popularized by Copan early in this decade.

What's next for RAID? One thing is certain: After two decades, it's likely this technique will continue to evolve and contribute to storage advancements for years to come.

Next Page: Magnetic TapeFirst invented for sound recording in Germany in the 1920s, magnetic tape is the oldest of the technologies on our list of storage inventions, and also the most ubiquitous.

Tape first made its way into the data storage world in 1951 with the creation of the UNIVAC 1 computer, and IBM started shipping magnetic tapes the following year when it launched its 726 tape unit.

Despite constant rumblings of its imminent demise, tape continues to thrive, particularly for archiving purposes.

“It was first, so you can’t avoid it,” says Mark Peters, an analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), explaining that the low cost of tape continues to drive its popularity as a storage medium. “There’s more enterprise data stored on tape than anything else – it’s mammoth.”

Such is the popularity of tape, that the technology has become a sort of barometer by which vendors measure their storage performance.Even the growing popularity of disk-based backup is unlikely to totally displace tape, according to analyst firm IDC. “We expect that removable disk backup products will likely put additional pressure on tape drives, particularly in the entry and low-end markets,” wrote IDC analyst Robert Amatruda, in a recent note, adding that VTLs will augment enterprise and midrange tape drives.

Despite the growing challenge of disk, tape will still have its place, according to Amatruda. “We believe the economics of high-capacity tape drives are well suited to deep archive and tiered storage applications."

Next Page: Robotic Tape Libraries

Cited by some as the world’s first successful robotic tape library, StorageTek’s Nearline system proved revolutionary when it was launched in 1987, according to Fred Moore, president of analyst firm Horison Information Strategies.

“That actually saved the tape industry, because people were sick of mounting hundreds of thousands of tapes – the lack of automation was killing the market,” says the analyst, who was working for StorageTek at the time. “That was a huge innovation – tape libraries are everywhere now.”Prior to the launch of Nearline 21 years ago, users had struggled with the hassle of changing tapes manually, according to Moore.

“People made errors, they put the wrong tape in the wrong drive, they dropped tapes – Nearline took away a lot of concerns,” he says, adding that IBM also offered a robotic tape library in the late 1980s.

Unlike IBM’s robot, which used a rail to access disks, StorageTek opted for a different approach. “This was a circular robot, as opposed to a rail, which had a lot of reliability problems,” explains Moore.

In addition to StorageTek, which is now part of Sun, other vendors selling robotic tape libraries today include IBM, Quantum, and HP.

Next Page: Virtual Tape LibrariesThe concept of a virtual tape library (VTL) emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s, when companies like Data/Ware Development (later sold to Anacomp), EMC, and StorageTek (now part of Sun) sought patents on systems that emulated tape. The idea was to enable existing backup systems to send data earmarked for tape drives to disk, thereby allowing storage pros to migrate to a more accessible medium while preserving their investment in backup tools.

Over the years, other companies, including Diligent, Quantum, and Sepaton, helped build momentum for VTLs and made the technology a staple of networked storage, especially now that de-duplication is delivered on VTL platforms.

It's likely VTLs will continue to play a key role in storage, in part because tape isn't disappearing. "Given that so many people are still using and relying on magnetic tape, even with the continued growth of disk-based backup, VTLs will continue to be the stepping stone from the physical tape to the disk based world for some time to come," states Greg Schulz of the StorageIO Group in an email. He notes that VTLs were once relegated by a few pundits to the

zombie list of technologies -- something he thinks nearly guarantees them longevity. "VTLs will be around in some shape or form for many years to come while the hype around them dies off," Schulz notes.

Next Page: MAID

Despite the current economic slowdown, NAS remains one of the healthier storage technologies, a testament to its usefulness in corporate data centers.Earlier today for example, analyst firm IDC reported that the NAS market grew 15.5 percent year-over-year, led by EMC with 36 percent revenue share and followed by NetApp with 31.6 percent share. Open SAN sales were slightly less robust, growing 14.7 percent year-over-year.

Essentially, NAS uses storage devices with their own network addresses to make file-based services available across networks, something which has become critical in today’s highly distributed technology environments.

NAS technology has its roots in Novell’s Netware operating system and the vendor’s NCP protocol, which were introduced in the early 1980s. Sun also drove this momentum forward with the introduction of the Network File System (NFS) protocol for Unix systems, though the technology received its biggest boost from NetApp in the 1990s.

In 1993, the vendor came up with the concept of a NAS storage appliance, and just three years laster, worked out how to offer both the CIFS Windows protocol and NFS in the same box.

”NetApp introduced the Multiprotocol appliance in 1996 and we were the first to do so natively,” says Bharat Badrinath, the vendor’s director of NAS Solutions. This move essentially opened the door to a slew of subsequent NAS devices.Next Page: Solid State Disks

StorageTek, now part of Sun, is credited with creating the first SSD 30 years ago, and the technology is now starting to make its presence felt in enterprise data centers.

The recent slew of announcements from EMC, Sun, and HDS, for example, underline the growing momentum behind SSDs in the enterprise storage market.

“It’s a very basic point, [but] storage, up until 1978 had moved – it was electro-mechanical and suddenly you had something that wasn’t,” says ESG's Peters.

SSDs use NAND flash or DRAM memory to create a fast-access, low-energy, alternative to traditional magnetic or optical media.Peters feels that SSDs have earned their place in the pantheon of top storage technologies.

”Think about what USBs have done for the world, and that is a Solid State technology,” he says. “About five years ago, you were really excited when you went to a conference and someone handed you a USB drive, but the technology has become such a big part of our lives.”

In a recent Byte & Switch poll SSDs were cited by IT managers as the emerging disk technology with the greatest potential for enterprise storage.

Next Page: Data De-Duplication

De-duplication, which prevents the same pieces of data from being backed up, first started appearing in disk backup products several years ago and is now championed by a host of vendors, including NetApp and Data Domain.The first vendors to offer de-dupe included Avamar (now part of EMC), which launched its Axion line in 2002, and Data Domain, which launched its first products in mid-2003. Other early movers were Diligent (now part of IBM), ADIC (now part of Quantum), and Symantec.

”In my opinion, de-dupe will become a table-stakes standard feature,” says ESG’s Peters. “It has a massive significance – de-dupe could go with things like thin provisioning, that are all about driving up the optimization of what you bought.”

The last couple of years have seen vendors increasingly tout de-dupe as a "green" technology capable of driving down users’ energy costs, and firms such as HDS and Diligent are also pushing wares downstream.

De-dupe has certainly been one of the most hyped storage technologies of recent times, though more and more users are weighing its potential benefits.

User group Wikibon, for example, estimates that de-dupe can demonstrate disk reduction ratios of 10x to 15x for backup or 2x to 3x for online storage, a crucial statistic at a time when users are drowning in data.Next Page: MAID

One of the newest innovations on this list, massive array of idle disk (MAID technology was developed by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2003, and was quickly adopted by local firm Copan Systems.

"We leveraged their technology," explains Chris Santilli, the Copan CTO. "We took their technology name and extended their research into a commercialized product."

Within a year, the Longmont, Colo.-based backup vendor was offering MAID on its flagship Revolution 200T device, and MAID is now offered across Copan's product line.

MAID systems, which are also touted by the likes of Nexsan, NEC, and Fujitsu, typically use a small number of spinning disks that serve as a cache for a set of non-spinning, passive disks. If a data request is not found in the cache, the appropriate passive disks are powered up.“The green momentum is making this more appealing,” says Horison Information Strategies's Moore. “It’s [also] a move to make low-cost disk compete better with tape.”

The last 12 months have witnessed a myriad of vendors launch their own power-saving disk technologies, including HDS and EMC, which recently unveiled "spin down disks."

Moore nonetheless describes MAID as something of an “under-achiever”, which has not yet lived up to its potential, but predicts that this is about to change.

“EMC, with all its marketing muscle, should be able to energize this space,” he says.

Next Page: SnapshottingThe ability to take a copy of a file at a particular point in time is not unique to storage systems; it's a common feature of databases and servers up and down the data center scale.

But when snapshotting became a backup option for file-based data in the late 1990s (after a long gestation period starting in the early 1980s), it helped launch a backup revolution that would continue with the advent of continuous data protection (CDP).

Early suppliers, including NetApp and FalconStor, have continued to benefit from the invention, as the need to reduce backup windows has driven most enterprises to require snapshotting as a standard feature of disk- and tape-based storage systems.

While implementations differ, the requirement for snapshotting will likely persist indefinitely. "Snapshotting is significant in that it creates a virtual backup window to enable data protection when a physical backup window is shrinking or no longer exists," writes Schulz of the StorageIO Group in an email. "It's a way of creating virtual time to get essential data protection completed while minimizing impacts to applications and boosting productivity."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Byte and Switch's editors directly, send us a message.

  • American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

  • Anacomp Inc.

  • Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM)

  • Copan Systems Inc.

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG)

  • Fujitsu Ltd. (Tokyo: 6702; London: FUJ; OTC: FJTSY)

  • Hitachi Data Systems (HDS)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • IDC

  • NEC Corp. (Tokyo: 6701)

  • NetApp Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP)

  • Nexsan Technologies Inc.

  • QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC)

  • Quantum Corp. (NYSE: QTM)

  • Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek)

  • The StorageIO Group

  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: JAVA)

  • Taneja Group

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