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Are There No Fans For The FAN?

A few years ago, Brad O'Neill, then an analyst with the Taneja Group, coined the term FAN (file area network) to describe a virtualized file storage system. Organizations that build FANs that integrate multiple heterogeneous file stores presenting a single unified, optimized name space should be able to save a significant amount of time, effort and money. The collapse this month of AutoVirt is just another example of how this promising technology has never gained any traction with paying customers.

Having spent much of my career bringing order to the chaos of mismanaged SME data centers, I've been excited by the idea of FANs ever since I saw a demo of the Z-Force switch, which not only distributed files across multiple file servers but distributed data RAID-like across multiple filers so a dozen little one-drive SNAP servers could deliver 1,000 IOPs.

After all, a FAN would let me transparently migrate data from an old NAS to a new one, even as users access the data. Without a FAN, migrating several million files from one NAS system to another, especially if the new NAS is from a different vendor, is a major project involving late nights running ROBOCOPY while the users are locked out of their stuff.

Even better, a FAN can consolidate files from multiple departmental file servers to a new file store while preserving their UNCs. That way, all the embedded links in the spreadsheet from hell that accounting uses to close the quarter will still work even though we've long retired the file servers called HAN and CHEWIE. The FAN's global name space also means the FAN can spread data across multiple file stores while it looks like a single big filer.

Finally, I can run a policy engine in the FAN that puts the low-value data, like the home directories of all the folks that no longer work at FunCo, on a low-cost tier device that won't need to be backed up as frequently as the active data stores.

Despite all those advantages, sales of FAN systems have been exceptionally unsuccessful. Even if we don't count data classification/ILM vendors like Abrevity and Scentric, the graveyard of FAN companies is well populated. Several tried the hardware approach, building server/switches that sat in front of file stores--Z-Force, Attune, which was built from the ashes of Z-Force, NeoPath Networks, which was bought by Cisco and immediately shut down, and Acopia, which was acquired by F5 to create its last-man-standing ARX file virtualization platform. EMC bought Rainfinity and basically gave it to its professional services group to use during migration projects. Rainfinity's tech recently reappeared in EMC's Cloud Tiering Appliance, which FAN-like migrates data to a storage cloud. AutoVirt isn't the first FAN software vendor to go to boot hill, either. NuView's StorageX was snapped up by Brocade in one of its early attempts to diversify beyond Fibre Channel, but it lasted only about a year as a Brocade product.

In AutoVirt's short life (the company was founded in 2007), it used its reported $25 million in venture money to develop AutoMigrate, a migration tool, and AutoManage, a full-blown policy-driven FAN implementation. Unfortunately, the company never sold enough software to make money and is going to the FAN graveyard.

ESG's Steve Duplessie blogged that AutoVirt's crucial mistake was targeting Windows file servers and their data. That meant that their tools made life easy for the Windows admins, and no one in management was going to spend money for that. He may be right.

Have you considered a FAN? If so, what kept you from pulling the trigger?

Disclaimer: Josh Klein and Klavs Landberg of AutoVirt spent a few of those VC dollars to buy me meals and drinks. Brocade and EMC are clients of DeepStorage. The rest of the companies mentioned are dead.