Commodity storage spurs mixed views

Commoditisation is a good move, but we're not at storage nirvana yet: users

Small to mid-size companies can expect to see a significant drop in storage hardware costs over the next year as big name vendors such as Dell and Intel produce standardised equipment in an effort to further commoditise the industry.

Dell announced at the recent Storage Networking World conference in Florida that it is now reselling EMC’s midrange Clariion Fibre Channel/iSCSI arrays and will soon offer a 10Gbit/s Ethernet switch in conjunction with the arrays in order to help companies back up stranded servers.

Dell and Intel say they are trying to take the guess work out of deploying storage.

Conference attendee Jim Ward, a storage administrator with Sallie Mae, says his company is currently evaluating iSCSI technology to determine where “it might fit” in his infrastructure — “as long as it plays well with everything else in our infrastructure,” he says.

Praveen Asthana, director of Storage at Dell, says his company is rebranding the EMC’s CX3-20 and CX3-40 Clariion arrays that were released earlier this year. The appliances offer either Fibre Channel connectivity or a mix of Fibre Channel and iSCSI connectivity to application servers. “The thing we’re trying to do at Dell is change the economics of storage,” Asthana says.

Last year, Dell began reselling EMC’s AX150i entry-level storage array, which can also be configured for Fibre Channel or iSCSI. Asthana says that since introducing that array, sales of iSCSI models have far outpaced those of Fibre Channel. The CX3-20, which scales to 59TB, has a starting price in the US of about US$53,000 (NZ$79,000) retail.

The CX3-40, which scales to 119TB, starts around US$90,000. Asthana says Dell will configure the mid-range Clariion arrays and accompanying servers at its factories. That will include storage components such as backup software, host bus adapters or storage resource management software. The arrays and servers can then also be configured along with Dell PowerConnect 10Gbit/s Ethernet switches, which with 24 or 48 ports will be about half the per-port cost of other competitive switches, Asthana says. “When it gets to the customer it will be ready to go.”

The PowerConnect switches will include features such as the ability to prioritise iSCSI traffic and VLAN capabilities so that both a LAN and SAN network can be deployed simultaneously. Seth Bobroff, director of marketing at Intel, says his company is focused on developing on storage-specific silicon chips based on its x86 architecture and standard Xeon chip for commodity deployment of direct-attached storage, network-attached storage and storage area networks. Intel has also been building white box storage arrays that include a 2TB array with RAID 5 capability based on its x86 architecture sold through about 180,000 channel partner vendors around the world.

Bobroff says Intel will be developing chips with a focus in three areas: data protection, performance and manageability. For example, in September, Intel introduced the IOP34x series of chips that offer RAID 6, which is the ability have two disks fail in a storage array without loss of data. The IOP34x series also offers support for high-speed serial-attached SCSI (SAS) and serial ATA (SATA) connectivity.

“There’s a lot we can do to make the systems less costly ... and easier to use,” Bobroff says. Intel is also working through the Storage Bridge Bay Working Group, which recently released a specification that uses a common array chassis that accepts a variety of controllers.

“It’s a first step in trying to modularise the chassis and controller form factor,” Bobroff says, adding that users should begin seeing commoditised products based on Storage Bridge Bay in the next six months or so.

“This effort here will address some of the cost issues,” he says. Users at Storage Networking World said they are considering deploying storage architectures based on commoditised storage, but are also concerned that manageability will become increasingly more difficult.

Paul Strong, a distinguished research scientist at eBay Research Labs in San Jose, says he is always “looking to lower the cost of our infrastructure”, but any new hardware in his ICT environment also risks adding yet another management layer.

Strong wants vendors to focus their development efforts on standardising management software in order to map an application’s use of back end storage systems, in order to help him determine the value of his infrastructure compared to its cost. “Then I can have a discussion with the CIO and say if you give me 10% more [money] this year, we can become a profit centre as opposed to a cost centre.”

Clyde Smith, senior vice president for broadcast engineering R&D at Turner Broadcasting Systems, says commoditised storage systems may have a place in his organisation but manufacturers will first need to distinguish themselves in the marketplace through better software.

“Software applications need to be developed and sold integral with the storage needs, whether that be backup and replication or, for my needs, intelligent data management,” Smith says.

“So we’re not just looking to drive cost down. Our most rapidly growing expense item is our support cost.”

Ezequiel Rodriquez, director of corporate development for financial services at Telefonica Internacional, says he’s watched the reduction in the overall cost of hardware that has allowed him to store more redundant copies of data in remote sites for disaster recovery. “I don’t think people are putting as much attention on the total cost to run these things. For example, [with] a fully-managed solution, you can’t just go by the per terabyte price. It takes resources and software,” he says. “They’re not counting stuff like the cost of the data centre space.”

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