Storage systems get supersized

Storage systems are becoming storage computers as vendors push functionality downstream.

On the first full day of VMworld in San Francisco in August, five-year-old storage vendor Scale Computing launched a new storage appliance that eliminates the entire I/O storage network that resides between servers and storage. Instead, the appliance uses powerful processors that are capable of hosting multiple virtual machines in the same storage box. The appliance requires no virtualization software and no external storage, which could cut storage costs by as much as 75% for small and midsize businesses with limited resources and storage expertise.

Some industry watchers call it a breakthrough. Others call it an expected progression in storage architecture. But all agree that the evolution of storage from basic systems to high-powered storage computers is a trend that's taking hold at organizations of all sizes.

"They're the first one I've seen that's done something like that," says Dick Csaplar, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, referring to Scale Computing's "collapsed" architecture, which combines servers, storage and virtualization in one appliance. "It seems fairly straightforward. It's one of those 'Why didn't it happen earlier?' types of questions."

In fact, many veteran and startup storage vendors have been plotting moves into high-powered storage computers for some time, as more functions are being driven down into storage systems.

One of the key reasons why it's possible to move computing power down into storage is the emergence of scale-out architectures, which can bring a lot more CPU, memory and networking to the storage level. Traditional storage architectures, with their fixed amounts of CPU, memory and networking, weren't designed to host applications natively on storage systems. Today, the emerging scale-out architecture lets users add many storage systems to an existing infrastructure and scale up not just capacity, but also performance, CPU, memory and networking equally.

Advances in processing power have also prompted the move to storage computing. With 16-core processors, for instance, systems have "incredible amounts of computing power. Utilizing some of that power for things other than straight application processing is coming," Csaplar says.

Server virtualization has also pushed traditional storage systems to the tipping point, with sometimes 20 to 30 servers virtualized onto one server. "So now storage administrators are faced with a tremendous load coming into one storage system," says Hu Yoshida, CTO at Hitachi Data Systems. "That has increased the demand for I/O processing."

Staking Their Positions

Storage giant EMC is working on next-generation scale-out capabilities at the storage level, but the vendor doesn't have a new product to announce yet. "It's certainly an area of interest," says Sam Grocott, vice president of marketing. "From an industry standpoint, I think everybody is looking at that. We have CPU cycles and cores and a lot more memory that is available for not just storage tasks today, but now for application use cases as well."

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