The project already is under way in the form of the Versatile Storage Server, which can connect to several types of computers, including Unix machines, Windows NT machines, and IBM's AS/400 machines. Shark, due in the second half of 1999, will incorporate the ability to connect to IBM's S/390 mainframes, too, said Dwayne Dueker with IBM's storage management software group. (See related story)
"We're hoping to take back market share," Dueker said.
That extra feature brings IBM back into the class of EMC, a high-end storage system manufacturer that stole storage market share away from Big Blue, even on its own systems. EMC's Symmetrix product can connect to IBM mainframes, Unix machines, and NT machines.
Shark will also compete against similar systems from Hitachi Data Systems, whose storage systems presently work as well as EMC's, according to analysts. Hitachi recently got a boost when it bumped EMC aside in Hewlett-Packard's lineup.
The need for greater storage space at companies is increasing, driven by the Internet and the ever-widening use of computers. IBM, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, and many others are trying to capitalize on that demand.
Some analysts have said that the storage is responsible for as much as half of the profit a company makes selling a new server and storage package.
Unfortunately, connecting that storage up to a company's servers is tricky. For one thing, transferring all that data from servers to storage burdens a company's network. For another thing, adding new storage adds to the number of devices information technology staff must cope with.
To that end, IBM and many companies are advocating "storage area networks." SANs are separate networks that add a new connection to each server, providing a channel that doesn't burden the main network. Storage area networks also can be used to connect storage devices in a centralized location, making them easier to control and maintain.
Several companies are working on SAN products, including IBM, Dell, HP, and Compaq.
It's little surprise that IBM, with its history of dealing with mainframes and complex computer ecosystems, is comfortable with SANs. SANs "will bring back data to the center of the enterprise," said Walter Reizner, vice president of marketing and strategy at IBM's technology group. "Shark will add a competitive edge."
Not smooth sailing
But there's a catch with SANs. For one thing, it's a pretty expensive change to make for a company to install a SAN, which uses relatively rare Fibre Channel networking hardware. For another thing, Fibre Channel, despite being several years old, is still somewhat green. Dell and IBM both have adopted a strategy of hand-picking a stack of components such as Fibre Channel cards and switches so they can guarantee everything will be able to work together.
The complexity of IBM's product line makes building this Fibre Channel "fabric" more difficult. A unified storage device such as Shark, though, would reduce that complexity.
IBM today announced that its Intel-based Netfinity servers now can plug into IBM SANs. S/390 mainframes and top-end Unix systems can use SANs already, and SAN support for IBM's low-end RS/6000 and AS/400 server lines will come in 1999 and 2000, respectively, the company said.
Setting Fibre Channel standards is a contentious issue, even though companies agree that such standards are needed. IBM is working with Fibre Channel Association and the Storage Networking Industry Association to develop SAN standards. EMC and Hewlett-Packard are supporting the Fibre Alliance.