A Baby Step for Storage Virtualization

Incipient's virtualization finally arrives, but only for Cisco switches

September 27, 2006

5 Min Read
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Startup Incipient is ready to ship its long-awaited intelligent switch software, giving competition to EMC's Invista and a glimmer of hope to customers who believe block storage virtualization belongs in the switch.

The Incipient Network Storage Platform (NSP) will ship this fall for the Cisco MDS 9000 Storage Services Module (SSM). (See Cisco Seeks Intelligence.) The NSP is Incipient's first product after five years and $79 million in funding. (See Incipient Still Incipient.) Like Invista, NSP is designed to run on intelligent switches and turn storage on disparate systems into one pool.

While IBM's network-based SAN Volume Controller (SVC) was launched in 2003, and Hitachi Data Systems' controller-based virtualization in TagmaStore came out in 2004, customers have had to wait for a switch-based enterprise product. (See EMC & IBM in Virtual Skirmish and Hitachi Struts Mr. Universal.) Many are still waiting. More than a year after loudly launching Invista, EMC has yet to name any customers, although a spokesman claims "dozens of large customers in various stages of evaluation and production." (See EMC Unveils Invista.)

Incipient's first announced customer says he's been frustrated for years by a lack of switch-based virtualization.

"That it's taken us this long to get virtualization in the fabric absolutely makes me nuts," says Jeff Boles, IT manager for the city of Mesa, Arizona. "I've been a proponent of virtualization in the fabric for a long time. Thats the most stable long-term part of your environment. People don't forklift their fabric every three years."Even as solutions trickle in, intelligent switch-based virtualization remains expensive and aimed at enterprises with at least 50 Tbytes of capacity. NSP starts at $275,000 for a two-node configuration, including data migration and volume management. Copy services -- snapshsots -- run an extra $45,000 per SSM. Invista pricing starts at $225,000. Neither product does replication yet, though both vendors claim to have it on their roadmaps.

Customers also find that virtualization solutions for intelligent switches are part of a Byzantine Web of compatibilities. Brocade and McData customers can't use Incipient software, and EMC's Invista runs on Cisco and Brocade switches, but McData switches won't be ready until next year.

What's more, roadmaps are subject to all kinds of market forces. Incipient's marketing SVP Rob Infantino, for instance, says Incipient plans to port its software to Brocade switches after Brocade settles on an intelligent switch platform following its McData acquisition. Hence, the Incipient support for Brocade probably won't be out until late next year.

Meanwhile, there is also rumor and intrigue to contend with: Sources say Incipient is pursuing an OEM deal with Hewlett-Packard to sell its software on an HP storage device, and IBM is exploring adding an intelligent switch through a partnership with Incipient.

"IBM has been doing very well with its virtualization product and I think other big companies have come to realize they cannot not have a virtualization product in their arsenal," analyst Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group says. "They're all scurrying around now with a new sense of urgency."Next Page

For customers who don't want to wait on the intelligent switch market to get virtualization software, there are products that support block-level virtualization on appliances. Suppliers in this segment include Cloverleaf, FalconStor, and StoreAge.

StoreAge software is also available on the QLogic SANBox 8200 intelligent switch -- another possible target for Incipient to port to. StoreAge is also working on software for Cisco MDS switches but has no release date yet, according to StoreAge marketing VP Kevin Liebl.

Across the board, block-level virtualization products purport to offer unique advantages. EMC, Incipient, and StoreAge use a split path architecture, for example, which separates the control and data information and assigns virtualization applications to multiple paths.

How do customers benefit? EMC and Incipient both identify data migration as the major application for fabric-based virtualization, so split-path architecture is supposedly a natural fit.Boles says he used NSP to migrate data from an EMC Symmetrix to HP EVA, but he doesn't consider that the major advantage of NSP. He says the ability to pool data on arrays from any storage vendor was the selling point for him.

He has 150 Tbytes on his EVA and might double that in the next year as the city adds a document imaging system. Boles says virtualization makes it easy for him to add storage from any vendor.

"They continue to advertise the migration benefits, but it's really a powerful virtualization tool," he says of NSP. "Data migration is fine, but we would've gotten around that by provisioning hosts between SANs and using volume copies. The biggest bang for the buck is transparent virtualization across EVA arrays. It gets us away from vendor lock-in. We can buy storage at the best price available."

As for using software from a startup instead of a large established vendor, Boles says another benefit of switch-based virtualization is he can change his mind without much risk.

"The software's running on top of the fabric, which is a secure investment," he says. "If I need to yank a tool off the fabric, it's easily done. It's low risk to me, so there's no concern about Incipient's size."— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • FalconStor Software Inc. (Nasdaq: FALC)

  • Grandbanks Capital

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • Hitachi Data Systems (HDS)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Incipient Inc.

  • McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA)

  • QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC)

  • StoreAge Networking Technologies Ltd.

  • Taneja Group

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