TECHNOLOGY: Storage games: The monolith vs the module

TECHNOLOGY: Storage games: The monolith vs the module

The emerging class of midrange products is often referred to as "modular storage". Designed with the cost-conscious customer in mind, modular storage offers a buy-as-you-go solution. Compared to the monolithic big boxes with up to 70TB of capacity, modular storage systems start at about 2TB and can scale up to 20TB. Enterprise customers are interested in these systems not only for their budget-friendly price tags, but also as an alternative to deploying another monolith.

"We had a window of opportunity to upgrade or replace our storage and we decided we were ready to centralise [it]," says Bill Caproni, director of technology and information systems at Russ Berrie & Co, a US stuffed-animal manufacturer. Caproni explains that the company of 1,500 employees wanted to get all 3.5TB of its storage networked, creating a storage foundation that could be added to as additional storage needs emerge.

"We wanted to do storage area networking, so we went back to EMC and purchased a Clariion," Caproni adds.

"The SAN model fits well for us. Our goals were to be able to do SAN-based backup with our Oracle databases," he says, noting that prior to the Clariion the company was taking its databases offline to do backup - and that was no longer a viable process.

The Clariion product family is EMC's foray into the modular market based on technology it acquired in the $US1 billion 1999 acquisition of Data General Corporation. Designed to work with a wide range of drive sizes, the EMC line is similar to what other vendors - such as Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Hitachi Data Systems - offer as they push into the modular market.

Most modular systems allow for drives and other components to be removed or added without powering down. Many of these systems are also built with redundant power supplies and support for multiple operating systems, features that until recently were only found in monolithic systems.

"The reason modular storage is looked at more frequently today is that it is more sophisticated [than a few years ago]," says Joel Schwartz, senior vice president at EMC's Clariion systems. "Today's array can be shared by thousands of servers and can be replicated around the world."

Competing vendors and analysts are seeing and saying the same things. Bill Goth, director of marketing at Sun Microsystems' storage division, sees the midrange market as "the sweet spot" for storage and for Sun. "The enabling technologies are maturing, and we're now bringing the benefits of similar high-end functions to modular systems."

"The midrange portfolio is growing faster than our traditional higher-end storage products," adds Roland Hagan, vice president of midmarket and midrange products at IBM. "We see it growing even faster over the next three to five years."

Mark Lewis, former head of worldwide storage marketing of Hewlett-Packard's storage division and now CTO of EMC, sees the rise of storage networking technologies as well as the improved manageability of once separate and unconnected midrange systems as the impetus behind the shift to modular.

"Customers are increasingly interested in modular storage because it is flexible, scalable, [has] less cost and more dynamics of scaling capacity," Lewis says. "Cost is becoming a bigger factor, especially price versus performance. With modular we can offer lower latency [than monolithic]."

Other technology changes making this growth feasible include the recent introduction of SANs, whereby storage is no longer tied directly to a single server, thus allowing customers to reap the benefits of consolidation. Additionally, applications that were formerly deemed high-availability have made their way down to the modular market. These apps include remote copy functions, remote management of the system, remote mirroring, and a virtualisation application that makes the storage appear as if it were one common pool rather than separate pools across different arrays.

"Monolithic systems are not low-cost, so there is no low price," says Arun Taneja, a senior analyst at US-based Enterprise Storage Group. "Between the price pressures and the shift of the storage intelligence from the boxes themselves to the network, modular has become more attractive."

Build-as-you-grow garners attention

Instead of buying storage capacity up front, customers now want to add drives as their needs increase. Such was the case for Jim Nonn, director of IT at Egan Companies, a 700-employee construction company.

Egan recently purchased a modular storage system from Xiotech, which has developed a line of network storage solutions. Nonn chose the Xiotech Magnitude system for a document imaging project currently in the works.

Like so many other enterprises, Egan Companies has a large number of paper files that it wanted to convert to data files for easier use. These files are primarily human resource documents and forms used by the company's accounts payable department.

"Typically you bought a server and additional storage [all at once]," Nonn explains. "But you are then stuck with storage you don't need and have paid for it up front. By the time you use it, it is worth next to nothing."

Nonn says Egan currently has 1.1TB of raw data in the form of 32 36GB drives. Faced with exponential storage growth, Egan felt that a modular solution made good business and technology sense.

"In a year, when we need more storage, we'll simply just call Xiotech and get new drives," Nonn adds. In the future, Nonn sees the company using the same box for file storage and backup of other databases.

Joe Inzerillo, former CTO of the United Center, the arena where the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks play professional basketball and hockey respectively, recently converted the United Center over to a SAN with the purchase of EMC's Clariion. Currently working as a consultant for the United Center, Inzerillo says the arena wanted to consolidate its storage, which had been originally located on five separate storage arrays.

The new array is storing the video clips the two teams use to analyse player performance and to scout opponents, Inzerillo says. "We converted to a SAN because our storage needs increased. We wanted to access video from anywhere and eliminate local storage, plus the video application needed high availability."

Software in the spotlight

The rise in popularity of modular systems among vendors and customers alike raises the question of differentiation. According to Bill Townsend, senior director of global marketing at Hitachi Data Systems, so many functions have moved into modular storage that the line between monolithic and modular is beginning to bleed. "We're starting to see blending of the technologies," he says. "And that means the challenge is around management."

To address that challenge, Hitachi announced in May its storage resource management strategy to provide a framework for managing storage resources across multiple vendors. The overall goal being pursued by many in the industry is to provide a means to manage a variety of competing storage systems.

Today, none of the midrange offerings co-exist well, creating a management headache for customers. EMC's Schwartz sees software becoming the differentiator as users look to manage their storage array from anywhere they choose. At the same time, services are becoming an important piece of the puzzle, with EMC striking a partnership with consulting firm Accenture last month and companies such as IBM, Dell, and Sun turning to existing service divisions and custom-solution building expertise, respectively. As storage solutions commoditise, adding the services side helps companies offer expertise with technologies and platforms other than their own - another source of revenue.

Despite the increasing emphasis on the development of midrange products, analysts and vendors alike agree the big boxes are not going away anytime soon. But with enterprises more often seeking flexible storage that is also budget-conscious, those big boxes may find themselves relegated to the sidelines.

"Monolithic systems are not easy to do inexpensively," says Enterprise Storage Group's Taneja. "In fact, we're looking for modular to become half of total storage business. But both have strong places [in enterprises]. Customers will choose based on intelligence required for their needs."

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