Optical SAN market seizes opportunity for growth

Dec. 1, 2002

SANs were once viewed as secondary business concerns, using either DS-1 or DS-3 connectivity to address disaster recovery requirements. Today, however, due to increased emphasis on the digitization of business processes, new regulatory requirements, and a heightened threat of terrorism, SANs are reemerging as one of the bright spots of a struggling telecommunications industry.

But even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, protecting sensitive data and data resources was quickly becoming a primary concern of enterprise chief information officers (CIOs). SANs, particularly optically enabled systems, have become a critical enterprise business resource in their own right.

A recent report in InfoTech Trends, a market data resource published by Data Analysis Group (Cloverdale, CA), indicates the worldwide Fibre Channel SAN market will reach $5.3 billion in 2006. According to the report, the amount of information requiring storage will reach 7 million Tbytes in 2006, up from just 800,000 in 2002.

As the demand to store more data outpaces the capacity of server-based storage, companies face the challenge of storing and accessing data without impinging on server performance. The traditional LAN/WAN approach will be incapable of handling the increasing demand.
Smaller SAN-solution companies must focus on a specific technology or application to remain competitive. In Akara's case, the focus is a Fibre Channel-over-SONET approach that extends business continuance applications between data centers across existing MAN/WAN networks.

As the volume of information grows, IT departments will likely adopt a strategy that separates spending decisions on servers and storage, making decisions on server-independent storage purchases more flexible and creating opportunities for SAN solutions.

SAN elements typically interconnect using either the Fibre Channel or Escon protocols. Fibre Channel takes the basic small-computer-system interface (SCSI) command and encapsulates it to enable robust interconnection between SAN elements. It uses a buffer crediting scheme to enable high-performance interconnections over a wide range of distances. Escon has a data rate of 200 Mbits/sec, while Fibre Channel operates at gigabit speeds. Ficon is an emerging SAN protocol that has characteristics similar to Fibre Channel. For transport, SAN protocols are converted to SONET, ATM, or Ethernet. A version of SCSI that operates over IP is in the works as well.

Some of the hot technologies driving the optical SAN market include data-center multiplexers, which enable enterprises to maximize WAN bandwidth use and increased visibility and control of resources. Ficon's emergence will enable next-step performance and robustness for Escon applications. Also, storage virtualization technology will simplify and enhance management of storage resources.

New SAN applications are also emerging. Healthcare facilities must comply with new Health Insurance Portability and Accountability regulations. In the banking industry, increased demand for reporting and maintaining compliance to regulatory demands is helping to boost the SAN market. The concern for homeland security generates a requirement for managing a wealth of necessary information.

"As the threat of natural and man-made disasters weigh heavily on the minds of enterprise CIOs, geographically dispersed computing and storage provide a means of maintaining business continuity in this risky environment," says Solomon Wong, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Akara (Kanata, Ontario), a manufacturer of storage-over-SONET solutions. "For example, in locations where the threat of earthquakes is significant, locating backup or mirroring sites away from fault lines is key. For a man-made disaster such as power brownouts or outages, being able to locate remote storage sites in a different power grid is a significant factor."

The promising SAN market is attracting attention from big and small optical vendors seeking to find at least one successful segment of a troubled telecom industry. Small focused SAN vendors such as Akara provide competition through innovation. Akara's storage-over-SONET solution focuses on extending business continuance applications between data centers across existing MAN/WAN networks.

Incumbent telecom players such as Cisco Systems (San Jose, CA) and Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, NJ), are dabbling in the SAN market at varying levels. Cisco's acquisition of Andiamo Systems (San Jose, CA), for example, significantly altered the landscape of the Fibre Channel world. Andiamo develops storage switching products and, according to market intelligence firm Current Analysis (Sterling, VA), paves the way for Cisco to enter a thriving market. The Current Analysis report further states that many SAN competitors are stuck in a range of transmission rates between 2 and 10 Gbits/sec, enabling Cisco to position itself "to attack the current Fibre Channel market with newer technology that offers a better migration path than competitors."

Partnerships are also evolving as a way to enter the SAN domain. Lucent teamed with Storage Computer (Nashua, NH) to complete the first live optically connected storage network using Fibre Channel-over-IP technology. The two companies combined products for real-time data mirroring and replication through an OC-48 (2.5-Gbit/sec) network, traversing distances exceeding 2,100 mi (New York City to Denver).

In a slow economy, Fibre Channel SANs are rapidly emerging as the enterprise solution for cost-effectively managing the data deluge.