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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the October 2001 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses discusses how several newly arrived storage standards will transform the marketplace…

Storage Slam

Convergence – noun: independent development of similar characters often associated with similarity of habits or environment.

If you’ve been reading the Bitstream most months, you know I try to cover technology that, while not explicitly “audio,” nonetheless impacts your production environment now or in the near future. The slant for this column is convergence and this month, the stars are assembled into a rare alignment that permits me to address the converging of several disciplines toward a potent prognostication.

Here are the facts:

• Brocade has debuted the 1200 switch
• Cisco has debuted the SN 5420 router
• SNIA has proposed a common HBA API
• Fibre Channel on the motherboard has arrived
• I have actually seen Fibre–to–the–home

Let’s detangle this jargon and see why these five events are important to you. First, the top two items: you have two industry leaders bringing out products that promise to support a wider range of protocols in one box than has been seen up to this point. Brocade’s 1200 is a director-class switch that just happens to support 1, 2 and 10 Gb versions of Fibre Channel (FC), but also iSCSI and InfiniBand. A fabric connection from anything to anything: that’s radical! Scalability, availability and forward compatability via modular design means that, like everything else mentioned this month, you’ll pay through the nose for it but we’re talking a tsunami–class sea change comin’ over the bow.

Cisco’s contribution is, on the face of it, just another (yawn) router. But wait, look closely and ye shall see that it supports iSCSI along with traditional IP traffic. This means you can now route your storage traffic with the low cost and ease of management that you’d expect from TCP/IP and the QoS or Quality of Service you’d typically get from Fibre Channel. Security, long a weakness of basic FC, should be better too. Don’t misunderstand: though iSCSI will, in the long run, win in the storage arena because of reduced cost, FC is the current performance king for storage and the DVD family is still the broadband delivery medium of choice.

I don’t know about you, but I spend way too much time managing IT resources and I bet that, if you were to take a hard look at your management expenditures, you’d find that improvements would be gladly accepted. Well, SNIA, the open industry watchdog for networked storage, has proposed a common HBA or Host Bus Adapter API that can be shared by the industry. This translates into different HBAs from various vendors all appearing as peers (sorry) in an IT Manager’s management application of choice, which is not currently the case. Each vendor uses some subset of open or proprietary protocols for monitoring and control of their HBAs, so you never know what method will work for a particular product.

This initiative assumes that, long term, vendors realize that working for their customers is more profitable than only working for their investors…<insert OMas mantra here, “Open Is Good”> We’ll see if the industry enbraces the open approach to management or not but, we can dream, can’t we?

For demanding storage applications, like high density, multiuser media production, networked storage makes fiscal sense. But, initial expenditure and reoccuring costs for such whiz bang stuff can be daunting. Now manufacturers have taken a subtle but important step, moving their controller technology from a plug–in HBA directly onto the motherboard of workstations and servers. This will reduce cost and power draw while improving reliability. Along with SATA, eliminating a HBA will further shrink the form factor as well.

The last bit of information I’ll offer up to you concerns a recent visit South Of Market. I was on my way home from a meeting when I was lured into the lobby of a new condo here in “SOMA.” To my amazement, the sales human’s mantra included “…2 Cat 5 wires, two coaxial cables and one fibre optic line.” Ye Gods, fibre to the home…think of the bandwidth! This augers well for the eventual appearance of fibre in every metro area. Granted, this crib was priced in the mid $400k range, so it damn well better have fibre for that price.

As I said before, you gotta pay to play while the tech is new, but all this stuff will trickle down to you–and–me levels in a surprisingly short time. So, save your newly inflated dollars and stand ready to catch any flying bits when storage technologies collide.

Pedant In A Box

Buzz words for this month are…

HBA

A Host Bus Adapter is hardware that provides interface services, both at the PHY or physical layer and the software or logical layer, between some communication standard and a computer’s OS or operating system.

Examples are the common PCI or ISA “cards” that allow you to add Ethernet, 1394/USB, Fibre Channel or RS-422 ports to your existing computer.

API

An Application Programming Interface is a set of pre–built “code” that allows programmers to circumvent getting their hands dirty with the inner workings of some complex, low–level mechanism. This approach allows a programmer to communicate with the low–level mechanism as an abstract, idealized object with a common, predetermined set of building blocks instead of non-standard, idiosynchratic syntax that changes as the mechanism evolves. An API provides both a vocabulary and syntactical framework over which remote “fly–by–wire” interaction can occur.

APIs are usually provided by vendors to 3rd party developers so the developer can “talk” to the vendor’s product. Meanwhile, the vendor is free to modify their product, confident that the “abstraction layer” or translation overlay that the API provides will maintain communication with the 3rd party product. James Moorer, king brainiac for Sonic Solutions (now software architect at Adobe Systems - OMas), likens APIs to mutual funds; you just buy or sell the fund. Internally, the mutual fund and it’s managers perform zillions of operations but all you have to worry about is, “…does it go up or down?”

Director–class

There are all sorts of interconnect devices for Fibre Channel, ranging from inexpensive, 8 port dumb hubs with spotty QoS and poor availability to massive, 128 port switches with excellent QoS and bullet proof, 7/24/365 availability. Director–class describes the latter, at the apex of the FC food chain and ready to take on the largest of storage network fabrics.

Bio

OMas has had a welcome break from attending conferences. He is pleased. This column was created while under the influence of Traffic’s classic eponymous work and Marillion’s Anoraknophobia.