SAN, NAS and the New Storage Architecture

One of the more interesting questions that is often overlooked in all the big things happening in the enterprise these days is what will happen to networked storage?

For old-time techies, it’s hard to imagine a world without SAN or NAS. The two have made up the heart of network infrastructure for so long that anything looking to supplant them is naturally viewed with suspicion. However, a quick look at some of the technologies impacting storage networking in the infrastructure reveals that the new order isn’t likely to eliminate existing storage network architectures, but maybe tweak them a little in form and function.

Probably the most direct challenge to the SAN/NAS hegemony is local flash storage. A number of firms are touting all-flash storage environments that link on-server capacity through the PCIe interconnect. Such an approach is not only cheaper, but will greatly improve response times compared to network-based approaches. To date, however, most enterprises seem content to use on-server flash as a high-speed cache and then supplement their networked storage arrays with solid state drives. Anything more would mean undoing decades’ worth of infrastructure development for the sake of an all-flash architecture. New enterprises and cloud providers building from scratch might be amenable to this approach, but not the vast majority of existing enterprises.

For a while it seemed that the cloud itself would be the end of the SAN, if not enterprise storage altogether. And indeed, some of the latest cloud platforms, like TwinStrata’s CloudArray 4, have adopted many of the same SAN/NAS protocols currently deployed in the enterprise. The idea is to allow users to integrate cloud resources with existing storage environments while maintaining support for common formats like CIFS and Active Directory. But even this isn’t likely to diminish enterprise SAN/NAS as much as it will prolong their existence as the local component of burgeoning hybrid cloud environments.

Meanwhile, a reverse trend is playing out in traditional enterprise platforms as they become more cloud-like. NetApp just unveiled a pair of new FAS3200 arrays designed to unify not only SAN and NAS environments, but to also operate comfortably with both flash and private cloud architectures. The system scales up to 2 PB across as many as 24 storage nodes, allowing for nondisruptive maintenance, upgrades and performance balancing using the ONTap operating system. It would seem, then, private and hybrid cloud architectures will require local infrastructure to be augmented, not diminished.

And all of this is happening at a time when storage networking is forging closer ties with LAN infrastructure. Emulex recently outfitted select HP Integrity blades with new 10 GbE FlexFabric adapters providing both LAN and SAN connectivity on the motherboard and cutting down on costly and complex external networking. The NC553i adapter allows up to three FlexNICs and one FlexHBA per physical port, with an adjustable bandwidth feature for workload balancing across the architecture. At the same time, the system incorporates Fibre Channel over Ethernet and single-root I/O virtualization (SR-IOV), further reducing networking infrastructure.

From these developments, it would seem that traditional enterprise infrastructure is not going anywhere soon. It will become more cloud-capable to be sure, and will continue to shrink in size and complexity through network convergence and virtual fabric technologies. But it will continue to provide vital support to the new dynamic data environments under development.

The future, then, will be all about building storage infrastructure that best suits user and data needs, not to conform to the latest architectural trends.

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