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Storage industry recasts itself in Net's image

The storage industry plans to migrate from using special-purpose communication technologies to the same protocol that governs the Internet.

The storage industry will migrate from using special-purpose communication technologies to link systems to the same protocol that governs the Internet, but it's going to take a few years, according to the top technologist of storage giant EMC.

The TCP/IP protocol, the communication standard that underlies the Internet, will begin to play larger part in the storage industry, but not for two years, Jim Rothnie, EMC's chief technology officer, said in an interview.

But for now, TCP/IP "is a much more expensive protocol to implement," he said.

The shift in how storage systems communicate with one another is a burning one for the industry. EMC and others have created a booming business out of constructing powerful but expensive SANs (storage area networks), special-purpose networks that join storage devices and servers but that are separate from regular computer networks.

SANs depend upon a communication standard called Fibre Channel, though eventually SANs will gravitate toward TCP/IP.

Switching to TCP/IP would make it possible to leave behind the expense and difficulty of Fibre Channel in favor of cheaper and better-understood network hardware. It also means that a new host of companies, such as Nishan Systems, could rise to prominence.

But, although TCP/IP will reduce costs, the process involved in getting there won't be cheap. The changeover will only become practical when TCP/IP with a data transfer speed of one gigabit per second can be handled by chips instead of comparatively slower software.

The hitch is that TCP/IP requires more processing power to implement than Fibre Channel, he said. The reason for the heavier computing overhead: TCP/IP assumes that connections are unreliable and noisy, whereas Fibre Channel assumes a less cluttered environment.

Even as TCP/IP and another interconnection technology called InfiniBand begin to share the stage with Fibre Channel, EMC won't care much, Rothnie said. His company and its customers will support whatever interconnection technologies make sense at the time.

EMC is the dominant purveyor of high-end storage systems. It's attacking storage specialists such as Network Appliance even as it fends off competitive threats from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Hitachi Data Systems, Compaq Computer, Sun Microsystems and others.

Last week, NetApp executives boasted that they're not seeing competition with EMC's new "Chameleon" product, officially called the IP4700.

Rothnie countered that EMC has sold hundreds of the new machines, but that it's still a new entrant in the market.

The storage industry has been taking lumps recently: Fibre Channel component maker Emulex warned that some customers are deferring orders. The news halved Emulex' stock price.

Rothnie, though, stood by EMC's projections that its customers aren't slowing spending on their high-end storage systems. He reiterated his company's projection that it expects to garner $12 billion in revenue in 2001.

"We don't see a demand drop-off," Rothnie said.

That message is different at Hewlett-Packard, a former EMC ally that severed its ties and began selling a competing product built by Hitachi Data Systems.

HP Chief Financial Officer Bob Wayman said in an interview that sales of the company's high-end XP line of storage devices is strong--growing more than 50 percent in the most recent quarter--but said, "I don't think anything is insulated" from the spending slowdown.

Ashok Kumar, an analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, also wrote recently that the storage industry needs a dose of reality.

"It isn't clear that the market will continue to view SANs through rose-colored glasses. The resulting (recent) disappointments will be spread throughout the storage industry," he wrote last week.