By Martin Banks

What enterprise IT managers would really like to have is “the great Windows Explorer in the sky.” This is according to Dan Tanner, director of storage research, storage, and storage management for The Aberdeen Group, who is making a reference to the current lack of any sensible means of managing all the files in a corporate network by file type within a single namespace.

This reference to Windows Explorer, which allows PC users to manage their environment at the file type level, reflects the current needs of IT management, particularly as the growth in Web services leads to the generation and storage of more and more flat files. It is also an idea that will be a reality as soon as the first quarter of next year, when Z-force, a Santa Clara, CA-based start-up, starts delivery of its File Switch system.

Using RAID as the model for a much bigger idea
Windows Explorer was not actually the impetus that drove the development of the File Switch. Instead, it is the RAID storage architecture that provided the starting point for the idea. In essence, the File Switch is designed to provide simple, rules-based file management across a complete enterprise network, including remote sites, by applying the analogy of RAID to network attached storage (NAS) systems.

It is an intelligent G-bit Ethernet switch that sits between the client network and the NAS devices, bringing them all together into one logical namespace. According to Z-force president and CEO Gary Johnson, the addition of the switch requires no changes to either the existing network or the existing NAS devices. Therefore, it nondisruptively plugs one of the significant gaps in storage that currently exists between high-end NAS cluster servers and the low end of individual NAS devices.

“The File Switch is designed to overcome the problem of lack of scalability with NAS devices,” Johnson said. “This can certainly be an issue for IT managers, particularly where a storage ‘hot-spot’ develops and the available storage capacity runs out.” The ability to spread the load across the entire network is just one of the capabilities the switch is able to provide. It also gives managers the opportunity to select which files are stored on which NAS devices, if that is appropriate.

Some RAID-like capabilities
RAID’s influence is best seen in the ability of the switch to stripe files across NAS devices in much the same way as RAID stripes across disk drives. This task is managed by a set of user-definable rules, based around file types that allow a range of file management services. As well as load balancing across a number of NAS devices, these can include other RAID-like capabilities, such as mirroring to allow frequently used files to store on a number of different NAS devices in order to give fast response.

“Because the switch is device agnostic, it allows the rules to also define which specific device files can be stored,” Johnson said. “For example, business-critical files, such as Accounts Records, can be specifically assigned to the highest-reliability NAS systems, as can their online backups. The other side of that coin is that nonessential files can be stored, probably without backup, on the cheapest systems. That is where an IT manager would store the staff MP3s.”

The rules, which Johnson suggests are simple to write, consist of a string of some five fields, with the file extension being the most important field. With this information as well as other data such as directory and subdirectory information, it becomes possible to manage how and where files are stored across the network, which extends beyond a single closed network environment and on to campuses and remote branch offices.

The agnosticism to different makes of NAS devices should also give IT managers greater flexibility in future product selection. “It can operate with the majority of NAS devices that are available, and it is flexible enough to allow IT managers to choose whether to operate with the existing user interface or have the File Switch provide a front end for it,” Johnson said.

In this way, users currently working with NAS devices from one vendor can continue to work with the interface they are familiar with, while gaining the ability to create a networkwide single namespace. But they also have the chance to start mixing suppliers, depending on the quality, reliability, and cost trade-offs that suit their specific needs.

“In addition, I am sure the File Switch will change NAS market dynamics considerably,” Johnson said. “It will give IT managers more leverage against the vendors. If NAS box vendor A knows customers can buy from vendor B and use that NAS box just as easily, vendors will start to act differently.”

To this end, Johnson sees the switch becoming an important lever for systems integrators (SIs) and other channel partners. In particular, SIs will have the opportunity to develop their own intellectual property rights over file management rules built for the specific vertical markets that they address.

Future predictions
Johnson quotes market projections that suggest the NAS marketplace will roughly double to $2.04 billion between next year and 2005, with the majority of that going to the storage hardware vendors. Johnson is expecting around $840 million to be spent on switches like the Z-force File Switch by that time. He also happily quotes Larry Boucher who, as founder of storage companies like Adaptec and Auspex, should know more than a little about the storage business.

“Boucher believes that the effects of the File Switch will be felt outside of the NAS business,” Johnson said, “with storage area network (SAN) systems being impacted. Boucher says that SAN systems could go the way of the dinosaur.”

That may be extrapolating future market developments a little too far. Certainly, Aberdeen Group’s Dan Tanner does not see File Switches’ savaging the future market for SANs. “I see a future in which the benefits of SAN and NAS can be combined,” Tanner said. “Z-force is a great solution to a specific problem, but it is not the ultimate, global solution.”

But there are some market influences that Johnson sees making that problem more significant, pushing future storage requirements in the direction of Z-force and the File Switch.

Johnson points to the fact that NAS technology is best suited to flat files, and the arrival of Microsoft’s .NET environment will bring a significant growth in the number of flat files created in enterprise environments. And they will be flat files that will need managing across the enterprise, in a single, enterprisewide namespace. With Microsoft’s betting a major part of its future existence on the success of .NET, it is unlikely to remain insignificant in future enterprise environments. So it seems Z-force has come up with a management tool that will be much needed at the same time that IT managers should need just such a device.