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IT infrastructure fundamentals

In a series of articles, I am going to share my thoughts on the state of IT infrastructure and how we've arrived with current architecture trends.  The topic today is SAN.

Storage Area Networking (SAN) is a technology that solved a real problem that existed a couple decades ago. SANs have been a foundational piece of IT infrastructure architecture for a long time and have helped drive major innovations in storage.  But how relevant are SANs today in the age of software-defined datacenters? Let's talk about how we have arrived at modern storage architecture.

First, disk arrays were created to house more storage than could fit into a single server chassis.  Storage needs were outpacing the capacity of individual disks and the limited disk slots available in servers.  But adding more disk to a single server led to another issue, available storage capacity was trapped within each server.  If Server A needed more storage and Server B had a surplus, the only way to redistribute was to physically remove a disk from Server B and add it to Server A.  This was not always so easy because it might be breaking up a RAID configuration or there simply might not be the controller capacity for the disk on Server A.  It usually meant ending up with a lot of over-provisioned storage, ballooning the budget.

SANs solved this problem by making a pool of storage accessible to servers across a network. It was revolutionary because it allowed LUNs to be created and assigned more or less at will to servers across the network. The network was fibre channel in the beginning because ethernet LAN speeds were not quite up to snuff for disk I/O. It was expensive and you needed fibre channel cards in each server you needed connected to the SAN, but it still changed the way storage was planned in datacenters.

Alongside SAN, you had Network Attached Storage (NAS) which had even more flexibility than SAN but lacked the full storage protocol capabilities of SAN or Direct Attached Storage.  Still, NAS rose as a file sharing solution alongside SAN because it was less expensive and used ethernet.

The next major innovation was iSCSI which originally debuted before it's time. The iSCSI protocol allowed SANs to be used over standard ethernet connections. Unfortunately the ethernet networks took a little longer to become fast enough for iSCSI to take off but eventually it started to replace fibre channel networks for SAN as 1Gb and 10Gb networks became accessible. WIth iSCSi, SANs became even more accessible to all IT shops.

The next hurdle for SAN technology was the self-inflicted. The problem was that now an administrator might be managing 2 or more SANs on top of NAS and server-side Direct Attached Storage (DAS), and these different components did not play well together necessarily. There were so many SANs and NAS vendors that used proprietary protocols and management tools that it was once again a burden on IT.  Then along came virtualization.

The next innovation was virtual SAN technology. There were two virtualization paths that affected SANs. One path was trying to solve the storage management problem I had just mentioned, and the other path was trying to virtualize the SAN within hypervisors for server virtualization. These paths eventually crossed as virtualization became the standard.

Virtual SAN technology initially grew from outside SAN, not within, because SAN was big business and virtual SAN technology threatened traditional SAN.  When approaching server virtualization, though, virtualizing storage was a do or die imperative for SAN vendors. Outside of SAN vendors, software solutions were seeing the possibility with iSCSI protocols to place a layer of virtualization over SAN, NAS, and DAS and create a single, virtual pool of storage. This was a huge step forward in accessibility of storage but it came at a cost of both having to purchase the virtual SAN technology on top of the existing SAN infrastructure, and at a cost of efficiency because it effectively added another, or in some cases, multiple more layers of I/O management and protocols to what already existed.

When SANs (and NAS) were integrated into server virtualization, it was primarily done with Virtual Storage Appliances that were virtual servers running the virtual SAN software on top of the underlying SAN architecture.  With at least one of these VSAs per virtual host, the virtual SAN architecture was consuming a lot of compute resources in the virtual infrastructure.

So virtual SANs were a mess. If it hadn't been for faster CPUs with more cores, cheaper RAM, and flash storage, virtual SANs would have been a non-starter based on I/O efficiency. Virtual SANs seemed to be the way things were going but what about that inefficiency?  We are now seeing some interesting advances in software-defined storage that provide the same types of storage pooling as virtual SANs but without all of the layers of protocol and I/O management that make it so inefficient.

With DAS, servers have direct access to the hardware layer of the storage, providing the most efficient I/O path outside of raw storage access.  The direct attached methodology can and is being used in storage pooling by some storage technologies like HC3 from Scale Computing. All of the baggage that virtual SANs brought from traditional SAN architecture and the multiple layers of protocol and management they added don't need to exist in a software-defined storage architecture that doesn't rely on old SAN technology.

SAN was once a brilliant solution to a real problem and had a good run of innovation and enabling the early stages of server virtualization. However, SAN is not the storage technology of the future and with the rise of hyperconvergence and cloud technologies, SAN is probably seeing its sunset on the horizon.

About David Paquette
Starting with a degree in writing and a family history of software development, David entered the industry on the consumer end, providing tech support for dial up internet users before moving into software development as a software tester in 1999. With 16 years of software development experience moving from testing to systems engineering to product marketing and product management, David lived the startup and IPO experience with expertise in disaster recovery, server migration, and datacenter infrastructure. Now at Scale Computing as the Product Marketing Manager, David is leading the messaging efforts for hyperconverged infrastructure adoption.

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