On the Road Again: Multipathing and More

Products and technology uncovered in recent travels that piqued the interest of our storage commentator.

Newark, Seattle, LA, and Irvine, California, last week; London, Amsterdam, and Brussels this week. I seem to be living out of suitcases these days. Along the way, however, I am learning about new technologies and strategies for solving storage problems. And everywhere I go, I hear the same complaints about products and services. Here is a round-up of those at the top of my list.

In Seattle, at another Computer Associates roundtable event, I met up with folks from Microsoft. I was encouraged to check out WinFS, the database-centric file-system replacement for traditional file systems that the vendor just released, way ahead of schedule, as a beta test product for the Windows Developer community. I had my test lab download it and check it out—and frankly, I’m confused.

If this product will eventually replace NTFS, the current file system for Windows XP and 2003 server, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the beta. In its current release, WinFS runs on top of NTFS and is therefore bound by file size constraints in the current FS. If WinFS treats all of its contents as a single file in NTFS, doesn’t that impose something like a 4GB file size limit on a FAT32 volume? If this is the case, I have to assume that this beta is intended to familiarize developers with the structure and function of WinFS, but it is by no means a file-system replacement in its current form.

More important to me are the rumblings I was hearing from storage companies about a “new” initiative in Redmond to impose its multipath input/output (MPIO) methodology on everyone’s gear. Multipathing is used to provide infrastructure resiliency by ensuring that redundant logical paths between servers and storage devices (through physical path components, including adapters, cables, and switches) are established. With such a scheme in place, if one or more of these components fails, causing the path to fail, multipathing logic can provide an alternate path for I/O. That way, applications can still access their data.

Technically speaking, with something like 87 percent server market share, Microsoft is in a unique position to tell storage vendors that they must conform to Redmond’s approach for doing multipathing. The consequence of non-conformance: you can’t host data from Microsoft apps—at least, not in a Redmond-supported manner. In many Microsoft-centric IT shops, configuration sanctioning by the OS vendor means everything in terms of storage-product selection. To sell into Microsoft shops, storage vendors would have to support Microsoft Multipath I/O.

Wondering whether Microsoft has the muscle to force a uniform method for multipathing down the throats of the storage industry? Ask Network Appliance: a few years ago, Microsoft said that nobody could host SQL Server or Exchange Mail unless they supported a block I/O channel in addition to any NFS or CIFS connectivity. NetApp had to jump through hoops to add this block-channel support to their gear or risk loosing a sizable part of their Exchange Mail hosting business.

With regard to this burgeoning Microsoft “de facto standard,” I can only assume that companies such as EMC are quaking in their boots. The Hopkintonians have their own multipathing approach and would probably not like to conform their products to Redmond’s approach because doing so removes one more differentiator between their wares and those of their competitors. Microsoft’s Multipath I/O would have the effect of standardizing storage I/O and would be one more nail in the coffin of vendors seeking to establish proprietary lock-outs of competitor gear. We will dive deeper into this subject in a later column as the situation plays out.

We will also be keeping an eye on a little company in Los Angeles, CA: TapeLabs. Well-known in the Tandem Non-Stop world, which is slowly being dismantled at HP, the company has a lot of expertise to offer in the more general world of distributed computing. I can’t share all of the details yet, but you can begin to get a clue by thinking about a key deficit of most virtual tape library products today: namely, that they emulate an actual tape library. This design metaphor to a real life library imposes limits on the capabilities of most VTLs, which is why TapeLabs offers a Virtual Tape Server (VTS) that supports a much broader range of functionality than its current competitors. As more news about this software platform becomes available, pay close attention. You might just find some practical solutions to your knottier data-management and data-protection problems, not to mention regulatory compliance in the form of managed data retention and deletion.

A $140 cab ride south of LA is Irvine, home of many storage companies including Zetera and Quantum. Talk about contrasts. Zetera just hit the streets with its MicroSAN product under the NetGear label, while old guard Quantum appears to be reinvigorating itself with a management focus on service and support that is garnering renewed customer loyalty.

First, Zetera. Having written about them before, I was delighted to see the warm reception their technology received when introduced to the market this week. It seems to be on everyone’s mind: block storage directly attached to an IP network and leveraging IP multicasting to build volumes and RAID-like protection.

The first product is aimed at home consumers. For $129, you can buy a Netgear box with Zetera inside. Throw a couple of disk drives into the attractive housing and you can place a TB of storage on your home network that looks and acts like an internal hard disk. Great for file servers, media servers, and other things like MP3 storage and maybe Xbox360 storage; but this is only the beginning.

In the near future, look for business-grade applications of the technology that enable you to capture the commodity pricing of disk and your current investment in IP networks in your shop. I am looking forward to testing these products in the next couple of months and will report what I find.

As for Quantum, the company has brought back some of the management talent from Certance and is currently working to capitalize on two things: its improved position as part of the LTO supplier triumvirate, and the reduced fortunes of competitor Overland Storage following Hewlett Packard’s decision in early August to cool its relationship with Overland as its key supplier of mid-range tape products for HP customers.

The mood at Quantum was more upbeat than I have seen in the last three years. However, like most tape vendors, the company faces an uphill battle against a burgeoning campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about tape technology being waged by a gaggle of disk vendors and their paid pundits in the analyst community. One thing's certain: tape is showing no signs of disappearing, despite remaining a sore spot with many consumers.

Doubtless tape will once again turn heroic as disaster recovery tales begin to surface in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I will also cover these in a future column.

If you are in Omaha, Milwaukee, Detroit, or Toronto, please accept my invitation to sign up for one of the free dinners being hosted by Computer Associates in those cities over the next few weeks. Go to http://www3.ca.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?CevID=72282 for more information. There are no vendor pitches, just good eats and an opportunity for us to meet face to face so you can tell me about your problems and concerns directly. And while on the road, I continue to invite your feedback and questions to jtoigo@toigopartners.com.

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.