HP 3PAR conjures powerful storage magic

HP 3PAR StoreServe 7400 combines high scalability, high performance, and a big bag of tricks for easing storage management

If you believe in magic quadrants, then it will come as no surprise that the market for high-end, general-purpose disk arrays is hotly contested, with six closely grouped contenders. EMC sits at the top, but Dell, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and NetApp are breathing down its neck. HP's position in the ranks is heavily influenced by its acquisition of 3PAR a few years back. 3PAR's magic makes HP a strong contender in the block-storage or storage array network (SAN) arena, able to stand up to all comers.

For this review, InfoWorld was offered the opportunity to go hands-on with an HP 3PAR StoreServ 7400 in HP's lab. I was allowed to exercise the management software, configure various storage options, and test out the system with both VMware and Microsoft software. HP 3PAR has been a VMware partner for many years, and its integration with vSphere and vCenter Server include plug-ins specifically for provisioning new storage on a 3PAR system.

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On the Microsoft side, the HP 3PAR systems support a number of the new Windows Server 2012 features, including Offline Data Transfer (ODX) and the SMI-S storage management standard. The HP 3PAR StoreServ 7400 system I tested was configured with four control nodes, six disk cages containing 46 SAS physical disks and 24 Nearline (NL) disks. List price for the system as tested is $235,000 before discounting. Basic configurations start at $35,000 for a bare-bones system with four control nodes. For network connectivity, there's 10GbE and 8Gb Fibre Channel. FCoE is in the works.

Modular, mesh-based architectureWhen you examine high-end storage arrays, you typically see either a modular design or a monolithic approach. Monolithic systems typically place all of the components in the same cabinet and use dedicated interconnects to achieve the highest performance. Modular systems break up the system into functional units and use more traditional interconnects at the cost of lower performance. The modular approach provides more flexibility in terms of expanding capacity by simply adding more storage modules.

From a high-availability (HA) perspective, you must add redundancy to protect against a single-point failure. If you've looked at any literature from the different storage vendors, you've no doubt seen terms like "active/active clustering" used to describe how the system handles the connectivity between the controller and the storage. There are also active/passive designs where all input and output (I/O) happens between the primary controller and storage until a failure occurs, at which time control passes to the backup processor. Active/active designs keep both (or all) controllers working all the time and distribute the I/O proportionately.

The HP 3PAR uses a mesh-based architecture that makes it possible for all nodes to directly connect to each other and to the underlying storage. This mesh effectively achieves an active/active arrangement because all nodes process data in parallel and can take over from any other node in the event of a failure. The distribution of data across drives uses an HP 3PAR proprietary technique to portion out the data in small chunks (aka chunklets) to create virtualized storage. Virtual volumes and virtual LUNs are then created from this pool of chunklets. It's basically HP 3PAR's approach to wide striping, which means your data is striped across many disks to improve both resiliency and performance.

Another key part of the HP 3PAR architecture is the use of a Gen-4 ASIC, which handles the bulk of I/O, as well as RAID functionality. The ASIC performs four basic functions: RAID parity calculation using an integrated XOR engine, handling mixed workloads of control and data traffic, communicating between clustered nodes, and zero-detect functionality, which implements the HP 3PAR's ability to reclaim and reallocate unused space.

Big SAN featuresThe HP 3PAR 7400 has a long list of features addressing ease-of-use, efficiency, management, and performance. On the efficiency front you'll find thin provisioning, which gives you the ability to specify a fixed amount of storage for a volume without physically allocating it up front. Storage is not allocated until data is written. Because the data is distributed across the drives in small chunklets that are tracked by the storage system, no additional hardware or software is required to achieve thin provisioning.

Load balancing is another feature that's effectively architected into the system. One of the primary benefits of using the mesh architecture is the ability to spread the work across all nodes. This, in effect, accomplishes load balancing as an inherent feature of the design. HP 3PAR also incorporates autonomic storage tiering. This feature performs adaptive optimization by classifying chunklets and migrating them between different types of storage based on usage. The rules for how and when data is moved are defined when you create a new Common Provisioning Group (CPG), and they can be defaulted to the values established through templates.

Additional features including data deduplication, remote copy operations, thin copy, and thin copy reclamation. All of these have to do with making the best use of storage and using disk space only when necessary. You'll find full support for generating volume snapshots at the array level, and this is integrated with software applications such as Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle Database. HP 3PAR offers a number of related add-on packages for operations like remote copy, data replication, and data migration.

Rethinking SAN management Simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to managing HP 3PAR storage. One of the primary goals for the HP 3PAR software team was to remove the need for the administrator to deal directly with drive configuration or LUN allocation, or to have to figure out how many spinning disks you'd need to achieve a certain level of performance. HP also recognizes the need for integration with storage consumers such as the virtualization solutions from VMware and Microsoft. In these cases, HP 3PAR provides plug-ins to work from within those environments to minimize the need to use more than one management tool.

The HP 3PAR InForm Management Console is the primary tool for administering everything to do with the storage system. It's a typical Windows-based management GUI with a left-side pane containing a tree view of all resources, another pane with quick links to common actions, and a large pane with detailed information about the selected object.

From the virtual machine management perspective, you need the ability to provision new VMs and locate an appropriate amount of storage. HP 3PAR provides plug-ins for both VMware's vCenter Server and Windows Server 2012's Server Manager to accomplish these tasks. For instance, creating a new virtual machine in the vSphere Client using the Thick Provision Lazy Zeroed option will allow the HP 3PAR system to thinly provision the storage on the back end. The VM gets the storage it needs without actually taking up the full 40GB of space as specified. The same goes when provisioning a new virtual disk from within Server Manager on Windows Server 2012.

On the HP 3PAR side, you'll find plenty of convenience features such as templates for virtual volumes and wizards for creating and scheduling adaptive optimizations. Creating a storage template allows you to quickly provision new storage volumes without the need to step through all of the options. You can always go back after the fact and make changes, if necessary.

Windows Server 2012's ODX has the potential to save loads of time and network bandwidth, especially if you frequently create new virtual machines by copying a golden image. In a nutshell, ODX recognizes when a copy command can be accomplished without moving any data over the network. This would typically be the case when a file is copied from one volume of the storage system to another. An ODX-enabled storage system performs this copy internally without passing any data across the network. Without ODX, all of the data comprising the file would make a round trip across your network, passing from the storage system to the host where the command was issued and back again.

SMI-S is a storage management standard published by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). Currently at version 1.6, SMI-S provides a way for a storage system to provide control and status information to third-party management software. The document for block devices (which exceeds 1,100 pages) defines a long list of functions not necessarily implemented by every vendor. The current HP 3PAR software supports a subset of the SMI-S standard. You can find the full compliance report for HP 3PAR on the SNIA website.

Performance, reliability, and scalabilityThese three scoring categories are interrelated in a number of ways. Traditionally, you get more performance either by inserting SSD or by adding more physical drives and spreading the data across them. HP 3PAR supports both options, as well as a hybrid of the two that leverages both SSD and spinning disk. HP 3PAR is a participating member of the Storage Performance Council and has published audited benchmarks using the SPC-1 guidelines detailing performance for a number of its systems.

The published numbers for the older F400 model were 93,050 IOPS and a throughput of 2,600 MBps. For the higher-end T800, the numbers were 224,900 IOPS and 6,400 MBps. You can get the HP 3PAR StoreServ 7000 in an all-SSD configuration capable of achieving speeds of more than 320,000 IOPS. Those numbers were measured with an HP internal Iometer-based test using 100 percent random reads of 8K blocks.

HP has a long tradition of building reliable hardware, and that extends to the HP 3PAR line. The systems are architected with modular trays, easily accessible and serviceable components, and redundant components. The HP 3PAR architecture supports adding a total of 18 enclosures to provide upward of 864TB of storage.

It's hard to find fault with the HP 3PAR 7400. Full support for all the SMI-S features in Windows Server 2012 aren't quite there yet, but you can expect more to come. You'll have to use the HP 3PAR management console in conjunction with the Microsoft tools to accomplish administrative functions such as creating new storage pools and adjusting the adaptive optimization schedule. The integration with VMware is more complete.

But these are quibbles. The HP 3PAR 7400 is a highly flexible, highly scalable storage system packed with innovative features that not only improve resiliency, performance, and efficiency, but substantially reduce the burden of managing storage. You could hardly ask for more.

This story, "Review: HP 3PAR conjures powerful storage magic," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows and data center at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "HP 3PAR conjures powerful storage magic" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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