RAID: Funny name, serious stuff

RAID: Funny name, serious stuff

While the fear-mongering security vendors love nothing more than to beat up the scare factor of viruses, corrupted data and denial of service attacks, storage vendors are happy to stand back quietly and smile. Why is this? Well, when it comes to data they know who's holding the family jewels.

Although the concept of RAIDs - redundant arrays of independent or inexpensive disks, depending on which computer dictionary you'd care to check - has been around for some time, a lot has changed since 1987. Back then, when a few eggheads from Berkley University in California first presented a paper on the concept, good disks were hard to find. They were expensive and had a nasty habit of doing the unpredictable.

Nowadays, the price per megabyte of disk storage has come down enormously, disks are more reliable, capacity has expanded manifold and performance is more or less a given. Sounds like end-user utopia, doesn't it? But don't be fooled. There's a statistic so prevalent in the market at the moment that IT managers wake in the middle of the night gibbering "70 per cent of IT spending is going to be on storage". All that cash must be going somewhere, and if you're a reseller it might as well end up in your pocket instead of someone else's.

Philip Sergeant, research director of servers and storage at analyst Gartner, makes a sobering point for people who haven't cottoned on to the sheer volume of storage being sold around the world. He claims that by 2004 server sales will be superseded by external disk storage, which for all intents and purposes are simply RAIDs.

And it's not necessarily technical skill that's holding back a lot of channel companies from making top dollar with RAID sales. He believes channel players need to be better marketing companies as nearly all rely on the vendor to generate end-user interest.

He claims we're not seeing the channel up sell or cross sell on RAIDs and storage. "The channel needs to be saying to its customers, ‘now I've sold you this thing, how can we work to improve it'," said Sergeant. The ability to penetrate a customer's whole IT infrastructure is a skill resellers aren't picking up on, because the cross-sell by nature doesn't have to restrict itself to the box. "They can look at the network's overall capability and so on," suggested Sergeant.

"We're not seeing that at the moment because a lot of resellers are still box movers - and I don't mean to be derogatory by that," he said. "The channel tends to deal with lower hanging fruit."

IBM business manager Jeff Lawrence has recognised a shift from when RAIDs were considered high-end solutions. Now, as hardware prices drop, RAID boxes are making their way down the value chain to the mid and lower end of the enterprise market.

The two central considerations when dealing with RAIDs - performance and availability - have really been reduced to just one, according to Lawrence. Performance is more or less a given, while availability and the protection that availability affords a storage system is the key differentiator.

Lawrence added that there are two schools of thought when it comes to implementing a RAID system. One is that the controller is integrated into the storage subsystem and the other is the JBOD (just a bunch of disks) principle, where the controller is located on the server. There is no argument that JBOD can be a cheaper alternative, but draining the processing power of a server and using the operating system to control the storage functions can have its own set of problems.

"There is no one right solution," said Lawrence, because there are so many variations that can be tried.

Lawrence also acknowledged that while a RAID system doesn't need third-party management software to drive it, for anyone serious about high availability, serious storage management and provisioning software is critical. This forms a wrap around service that resellers can take to their customers, and as Lawrence added, the price of the software and to a degree the RAID box itself is only a fraction of the overall sale.

According to Trevor Jones, network specialist and systems engineer at storage vendor StorageTek, "storage should be an infrastructure sell but is still sold on a project-by-project basis. The reseller has to help the IT people see beyond the short-term costs."

While Jones claimed he's never been busier configuring RAIDs, this is a service some of the bigger channel companies are offering themselves. "The do-it-yourself resellers are on better margins and have direct relationships with vendors," he said.

With the pressure on smaller distributors to move up the value chain, Jones sees the pre-configuration of RAID boxes as a definite opportunity for these companies.

But it's not as easy as banging a few disks together, throwing a controller at it and slapping it out the door. Jones claims there are countless design and configuration considerations, such as matching hosts with controllers, getting the RAID certified by the manufacturer and, in his words, there's the inevitable "bugger factor".

"There's always one bugger of an [operating system] platform that can bite the unwary on the bum," Jones said.

Often success can be as straightforward as backing the right horse. In regards to RAIDs, the right horse appears to be which environment you're playing in according to Abie Gelbart, product marketing manager, Australia/New Zealand at storage giant EMC.

The open systems environment of NT and Unix is growing substantially faster than the mainframe market, sometimes at 100 per cent per annum, claimed Gelbart, despite the fact that the mainframe market is continuing to grow at nearly 30 per cent, he added. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise applications such as CRM and data warehousing is driving the data explosion.

Gelbart also recommended spending a bit of time working out which RAID configuration, and there are seven levels to begin with, to choose from. According to research by analyst International Data Corp, EMC still leads the total RAID market share revenue race with around 26.1 per cent of the market last year. From its position, and it's probably a fair position to take, it's pushing RAID 1 at the enterprise level and RAID 5 for mid-sized companies. It's a case of balancing the size of the disk with the retrieval and subsequent transfer rate to a new disk if one should accidentally fall off the wall.

With so much talk about storage area networks (SAN) versus network attached storage (NAS), where the RAID fits into the solution and its application is often the key. For example, if a company wants to share Web pages then NAS, with its IP-based platform and fast retrieval time, it's ideal, said Gelbart. However, if a company wants to manage a database with large blocks of information, a Fibre Channel SAN is the way to go, he added.

Gelbart also felt that while hardware is evolving fairly typically, the explosion of data is enormous, so managing that explosion is where resellers can step in and make solid revenues. "Personally I believe the real challenge for 2001 is how we are going to manage the data growth going forward," Gelbart said. "It's about reducing the cost of managing storage."

One integrator which has moved into the space is BCA IT, who's NSW sales manager Bob Humphrey sees the market as not consisting solely of raiding and pillaging - there are basics to what many people see as a bit of a black art.

"When you're talking about storage you're talking about data, a company's most valuable asset," Humphrey said. "You've got to get it right first time and if you don't have the skills then don't take the risk."

That's not to say both the channel and the end user aren't getting more switched on about what they're doing, claimed Humphrey. "Customers are better educated and vendors are much more conscious of the resellers' and customers' knowledge.

Bernie Humphries, marketing and product development groups manager at storage integration and distribution company e-Data-Group, has a firm opinion of where that software management is going. According to Humphries, the rise of "virtualisation" between server farms or remote sites and RAID devices is going to be a strong selling point for integrators selling storage in the future. The ability to share disk space for any application across the network regardless of which server it comes from is the next phase for channel companies to start integrating.

Scalability of capacity is one thing, but it's the type of scalability that's important, according to Humphries. He believes the sharing of capacity is the smarter option than throwing bigger disks and more servers at a problem.

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