Xsan full review

Growing storage needs in video production environments, broadcasting and scientific research can turn data management into a major challenge. Established mass-storage equipment and SAN (Storage Area Network) solutions are not designed for the Mac user in mind, much less for the Mac administrator, and they tend to be unjustifiably expensive. So Apple stepped in with Xsan, a 64-bit SAN file system that may turn the Xserve RAID into the iPod of the enterprise.

Mass storage, plug-and-play
Xsan is a SAN file system, with management software Xsan Admin. It lets you consolidate vast amounts of storage in logical volumes of up to 16 terabytes (TB) each and make them accessible to clients over a shared high-performance Fibre Channel connection (FC) at speeds of roughly 200MB per controller.

Best of all, Xsan makes the volumes your users see expandable without the penalty of downtime. With hot-pluggable drive modules in Xserve RAIDs you can grow the storage capacity of Xsan volumes as your needs grow, avoiding the need for ample advance purchases.

You can even plug-in additional arrays in a way your users won’t notice (clients are no longer requested to unmount affected volumes). In fact, users can access files while the administrator plugs in new hard drives or even replaces defunct parts such as a damaged power supply (redundant in the Xserve RAID) or an ailing hard drive (with RAID level configurations that provide adequate redundancy such as RAID Level 5). Thanks to Xsan’s FC multipathing, a broken cable is not the end of the storage, either: it will be circumvented until a replacement is put in place.

Apple’s RAID on enterprise IT
This approach is not new. SAN and mass-storage veterans including IBM, HP/Compaq, Sun and SGI have provided these and other advanced features for years. What they all have in common is complicated setup, burdensome administration tools and astronomically expensive mass-storage equipment. Apple pioneers both the affordability and the manageability of high-performance, scalable mass storage with Xsan.

It’s particularly important that you can purpose Xsan to your own IT department without having to give up existing infrastructure such as high-end Fibre Channel switches or industry-standard SAN solutions based on ADIC’s StorNext file system.

StorNext/CVFS has been deployed with operating systems ranging from IBM AIX, Red Hat Linux, SuSE Linux, SGI Irix, UNICOS/mp (via Cray’s X1 product) to MS Windows for years. Xsan’s interoperability with this standard gives Macs an invaluable foothold in enterprise-class computational environments.

What is even more, Mac OS X Server can provide various network and file services hands-down to both Windows and Linux clients as well as to Macs. Mac OS X Server even beats Microsoft when it comes to delivering file services to Windows clients without breaking the bank.

Xsan allows enterprise-class customers to plug together massive amounts of high-performance storage from affordable components.

For starters, Xsan deployment requires you to put together one or more Xserve RAIDs to hold the storage, a FibreChannel switch for connectivity, one or several Xserve G5s as metadata controllers to manage the data traffic and several FC-equipped Macs to perform file services and negotiate between the FC switch and your Ethernet clients.

You will need at least two metadata controllers to be able to benefit from the failover functionality of Xsan: if one machine breaks down, the remaining system will automatically take over the duty and notify the administrator.

To enable non-techies to remotely manage and monitor various parts of the network, Apple provides very reliable remote administration utilities. Xsan Admin lets you set up a SAN in a matter of minutes. To keep an eye on your Xserves (to check their temperature, for example), all you need to do is consult Server Monitor. For setup and remote administration of Xserve RAIDs, turn to RAID Admin.

Why Apple keeps hurting itself by not admitting entry to an Xsan showroom anywhere in the UK is baffling. Prospective buyers or administrators should be able to put their hands on an Xsan-driven storage network and see for themselves that Apple does deliver what others have merely promised.

During February and March, users can attend free seminars on introducing collaborative video workflows with Xsan hosted at several US locations, there are no Xsan workshops within the EU.

It takes two
Xsan beats the competiton – including Dell, HP, IBM, SGI and Sun Microsystems – as the most affordable, and easiest to integrate and maintain SAN environment under the sun.

But in making the decision to deploy or recommend it, it must be remembered that providing mission-critical services always takes two: the enterprise customer and Apple’s disaster-recovery services.

Xsan is ready for mission-critical applications, especially if deployed in a metropolitan area where your needs in case of an emergency will be best served. If Apple’s services can indeed live up to the promise of highly responsive enterprise-level support only time will tell.

Time-to-market does matter a lot. Storage-dependent businesses in broadcasting, video editing or CG often simply can’t afford to wait three to four weeks (the estimated delivery time in the UK/Ireland, US and Canada) for Apple to ship an Xserve RAID order. Apple should certainly improve on this.

Whether Apple’s Xsan with the Xserve G5 and Xserve RAID will turn to be the ‘iPod of the enterprise’ is too soon to tell. With its reliable interoperability, flexible management software and breath-taking cost-savings, it has all it takes to reshape IT departments.

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