Carlson builds IP SAN with global reach

US hotel, restaurant and travel giant Carlson Companies Inc. this week will finish deployment of what is arguably the largest storage area network (SAN) based on both Fibre Channel and Internet protocol. The SAN will give Carlson the ability to link offices anywhere in the world to databases within its headquarters data center.

Some experts see the Carlson storage network as marking the beginning of true merging of Fibre Channel SANs and emerging IP SANs. The technology also marries switching and routing capabilities from Cisco Systems Inc. and Nishan Systems Inc., which sell competing products in the IP storage marketplace.

Eric Sheppard, a storage analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said Carlson's SAN is less a challenge to traditional Fibre Channel networks than the beginning of enterprise-class uses.

"This is far more of an integration of IP into the SAN, and that's significant," Sheppard said. "It didn't occur to me that that was the sweet spot for IP -- the high end. This is the data center, and that's striking."

By using IP instead of Fibre Channel as the core network in its data center, Carlson has already saved money by exploiting existing infrastructure and networking expertise, and it expects to see those savings grow as the SAN fans out across the globe. The 12 IP switches, two routers and 10TB of array storage cost $2 million. Carlson paid $40,000 each for Nishan's switches, $80,000 each for Cisco's routers and $1.2 million for a Hewlett-Packard Co. XP512 storage array.

With locations in more than 140 countries, Carlson needed a way to share enterprise data with satellite offices, customers and suppliers as well as perform backup and recovery for remote offices. An IP storage area network offered better data packet control and ease of use, executives said.

"This all started out as a way of reducing cost or optimizing our infrastructure cost in the company. As you scale across the globe, which is our intent, the cost reduction opportunities here are large," said Carlson CIO Steve Brown.

Brown hasn't yet calculated the return on investment for the project.

Carlson began testing the SAN in February and is connecting its application servers to it.

Also unique about the project is that Carlson overlayed a SAN template called the Shared Storage Model created by vendor members of the Storage Networking Industry Association, an industry advocacy group, which saved Carlson in development costs.

Carlson deployed the network using Fibre Channel to IP storage switches from Nishan in front of HP and Sun servers that then attach to two redundant Cisco 6509 routers as the core of their network. The routers then connect to more Nishan switches on the front end of HP's storage array. The network protocol Carlson used is known as Internet Fibre Channel Protocol or iFCP.

IFCP is vying for standards status along with FCIP, or Fibre Channel over Internet Protocol, within the Internet Engineering Task Force. Both extend Fibre Channel fabrics by "tunneling" between two SANs over an IP network, but iFCP has better network management capabilities.

"By building the core with IP and Gigabit Ethernet, they can treat the SAN as if they were managing and operating a LAN. Now they have a high-speed SAN backbone that connects servers and storage redundantly, and they know how far they can push it without worrying about dropping data [packets]," said Nishan spokesman Randy Fardal.

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