HP storage group takes on new foes

The company will expand its storage products in a new direction in coming months, a move that will mean new competition against a host of networking competitors.

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Stephen Shankland
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CUPERTINO, Calif.--Hewlett-Packard will expand its storage products in a new direction in coming months, a move that will mean new competition against a host of networking competitors.

HP currently sells storage systems, the devices that actually hold information. But by the end of this year or early next year, HP will introduce a high-end network switch for shuttling data between storage devices, Nora Denzel, vice president of HP's Network Storage Solutions Organization, said in an interview at HP's semiannual analyst day Wednesday. The move will be the first time a major server maker has pushed into the networking side of the booming storage business.

The switch will be HP's entry into a growing new category of storage products, those that use the communications standard that powers the Internet. Currently, storage devices and servers are connected in collections called storage area networks (SANs) using a standard called Fibre Channel.

Companies such as HP, EMC, IBM and Compaq Computer sell storage systems that rely on partners such as Brocade Communication Systems, McData, Gadzoox or Inrange to supply networking equipment. HP will be crossing the divide, though, and selling both types of products.

HP's high-end storage products use equipment from McData and Brocade. The new direction at HP isn't likely to irk those partners, though, since they're not heavily invested in storage networking using the Internet Protocol (IP), said Dan Tanner, senior analyst for storage at Aberdeen Group. "Neither Brocade (nor) McData is an IP company," he said.

Big, uncertain rival
But the move will pit HP against a new arrival that's sent shockwaves through the storage world: Cisco Systems, the dominant networking company.

Cisco plunged into the storage networking market in April. With years of expertise in Internet communications, the company naturally chose IP-based storage technologies.

"The big 900-pound gorilla is Cisco," Tanner said, adding that the company still needs "to convince people they know about storage."

One of the key standards for IP-based storage networking is iSCSI, an Internet version of the SCSI technology used to attach hard disks and other devices to computers. IBM is working with Cisco to make iSCSI a standard approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force.

A key element of using IP for storage is the increased processing demands it places on servers. Building iSCSI network cards with chips that encode IP information will free server CPUs from that task. EMC predicts this change will make IP-based storage economical in 2003.

While iSCSI still is under development and iSCSI is slower than Fibre Channel, those developing it learned from the problems that hampered Fibre Channel, Denzel said. Fibre Channel's promise was dimmed chiefly because of problems getting different companies' devices to work together.

HP's switch will be a hybrid model that can handle both IP storage traffic as well as the more conventional networking message traffic, Denzel said.

Booming market
Storage has acquired greater importance in the computing industry, creeping out from behind the servers that for years garnered the most attention. Storage systems often are still connected to a sole server, but companies such as EMC have profited by endowing storage systems with more capabilities that make them standalone products.

And storage is a growing market. Denzel said the storage market HP is tackling will grow from about $65 billion this year to about $140 billion in 2004.

As customers spent money to get that increasing independence and power, server makers IBM, HP, Compaq and Sun Microsystems have jumped into the game to try to grab some of EMC's market and revenue.

HP wants to increase the independence of storage systems another level through a project called Federated Storage Area Management (FSAM). Here, HP is working on "virtualizing" storage: unifying storage systems into a gigantic pool that keeps track of where information is located. With virtualization, people don't have to know which system stores their data.

Denzel argues that FSAM will make it possible to increase the amount of data stored tenfold without having to increase the size of the staff managing that data.

Key to FSAM is HP's OpenView management software, which will govern how individual storage systems behave--backing up data, freeing new space or adding new storage systems to the network. And because OpenView can control many different companies' products, FSAM won't be limited to HP storage hardware.

Tanner is more skeptical. "FSAM is wonderful, but I don't know who's paying a lot of attention to it," he said.

And numerous companies are working on storage virtualization. IBM, for example, has a project called Storage Tank that's similar, but which uses an IBM server to keep track of the whole collection.