Big-time Storage on the Cheap

Increased functionality and lower component prices are making midrange storage an attractive option for many companies.

Late last year, Ameritrade Holding Corp.'s IT department began ripping out its high-end monolithic storage systems and replacing them with less-expensive and more-modular midrange storage arrays.

Asiff Hirji, CIO at the Omaha-based online brokerage, prides himself on having the most cost-efficient platform possible and says, "The performance in the midtier storage systems has come to the point where, for our needs, they do what we need them to do. We don't need to spend the additional money on the high-end systems. That's made a big difference on our cost per gigabyte."

The saturation of the enterprise marketplace with Fibre Channel storage-area network technology has forced vendors to look to midsize companies to fill their SAN orders. But in order to sell to that market, vendors have been forced to offer the same functionality that had been exclusive to high-end systems, industry experts say.

High-end or monolithic arrays are housed in refrigerator-size cabinets and come with all the processing capacity they'll ever have as well as a full set of feature functionality. High-end boxes can cost more than $1 million. In comparison, midrange or modular storage arrays range from $50,000 to about $300,000. Midrange arrays are housed in a rack and can start out as a low-end product and grow through the addition of controllers (processors) and functionality as business needs grow.

For example, Hewlett-Packard Co. announced in March that for the first time its SAN-to-SAN fail-over capability can be added to its midrange Enterprise Virtual Array (EVA) products. Other high-end functionality, such as data snapshots, data mirroring and data migration, is now commonly found in midrange arrays from most major vendors.

Asiff Hirji, CIO of Ameritrade Holding Corp.
Asiff Hirji, CIO of Ameritrade Holding Corp.

"The pressure is on the high-end [systems vendors]. Users know the level of sophistication has moved downstream, and it gives them another option for storage," says Tony Prigmore, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass.

The trend downward is also revealed in vendor sales. EMC Corp. reported in its first-quarter earnings this year that its midrange Clariion line of storage arrays and related software saw more than a 40% revenue growth for the fourth quarter in a row. Meanwhile, its high-end Symmetrix array line went from 5% revenue growth four quarters ago to a 3% drop in revenue in the first quarter of this year.

Mike Sink, director of network and operational infrastructure at the Kichler Lighting Group in Cleveland, a wholesale lighting and fixture company that has customers in 140 countries, replaced a high-end EMC Symmetrix array a year ago with a midrange EMC Clariion CX600 array with 12TB capacity in order to back up 30 Unix and 30 Windows servers.

"The Clariion line has a lot of the same functionality that the Symmetrix has. The core functionality like replication, cloning of disk, snap copies, SAN mirroring. ... Those tools have been offered at the midrange level, which is an advantage to us," Sink says.

Adding to the appeal of midrange systems is the plummeting price of Fibre Channel components, such as Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) disks, host bus adapters (HBA) and network switches, as well as vendor package deals that have placed high-functionality SANs well within the reach of midsize businesses.

Josh Howard, an enterprise storage specialist at CDW Corp., a $5.7 billion technology reseller in Vernon Hills, Ill., says HBAs are less than half the price that they were two years ago and storage switches have also dropped to about half their former price. Those prices are wooing companies into buying midrange SANs, which tend to be designed for companies with about 1,000 employees or more.

Howard says much of the pressure to reduce prices is coming from competition from IP-based storage, such as Internet SCSI.

"A lot of iSCSI vendors are bundling in host-based replication, and it's at a much lower cost when you use iSCSI versus Fibre Channel," Howard says.

But performance continues to be an issue with iSCSI adoption. IP-based storage currently poses no real challenge to Fibre Channel because Fibre Channel is still four times as fast as iSCSI, says Bob Passmore, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Fibre Channel is also far more reliable because it was built for storage subnetworks and not LANs like SCSI, he adds.

But as iSCSI continues to creep up the data center food chain and the price of 10Gbit/sec. Ethernet drops, there will be increased pressure on Fibre Channel storage vendors to cut costs. And eventually, iSCSI could replace Fibre Channel as the most popular storage subsystem interconnect.

Dan Harrison, a Unix systems administrator at the New York State Unified Court System in Troy, N.Y., last year replaced a high-end EMC Symmetrix array with several midrange boxes from Network Appliance Inc. because doing so gave him the choice of using network-attached storage, a Fibre Channel SAN or iSCSI.

Harrison purchased a cluster of NetApp FAS960 arrays, a FAS250 and FAS270 and a R200 NearStore array. He says he was won over to the midrange boxes in part because they came with software for taking snapshots of data for backups and can mirror data changes between arrays—features that had formerly been available only on high-end systems like Symmetrix.

"Our current storage environment is easier to administer. With respect to hardware, I can say our administration is simplified and our productivity is up as a function of that," Harrison says. He also uses the iSCSI connectivity on the FAS960 to consolidate backup of the court system's Linux, Unix and Wintel servers.

One advantage of midrange arrays is that they allow companies to use relatively low-cost ATA disks to build a tiered infrastructure internal to the box by using a combination of ATA memory and Fibre Channel or SCSI disks. Higher-end boxes have yet to offer that feature.

Hitachi Data Systems Corp.'s Thunder line of arrays, HP's EVAs, NetApp's FAS arrays and IBM's DS4000 and DS8000 series arrays all have the option to use ATA disk technology.

Learning Curve

One of the arguments against rolling out Fibre Channel is the complexity of the network. Most companies must hire Fibre Channel network administrators to configure and maintain the systems.

Nowadays, however, many vendors are offering preconfigured SANs that are fairly easy to deploy. But preconfigured doesn't mean cheap, analysts say.

Joel Reich, senior director of product marketing at NetApp, said bundled SANs are being sold more for ease of configuration than for cost-cutting. "We're not in the camp of trying to find out ways to knock pennies out of the cost of Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel will never get to the cost of Ethernet," he says.

Sink says Kichler Lighting's Clariion came preconfigured with 16-port switches from Brocade Communications Systems Inc. in San Jose and HBAs from Emulex Corp. in Costa Mesa, Calif. While there was a learning curve for his systems administrators, it was relatively small because the software tools are "very intuitive," says Sink.

"We didn't have to hire a Fibre Channel expert. It didn't even require a network administrator. The Unix admin was able to connect everything and provision the storage," says Sink, who has a staff of 25 IT personnel to manage storage for Kichler's 600 employees.

The Clariion CX600 was under $100,000, and with network hardware and management and replication software, the SAN cost about $300,000 for the original 4.5TB capacity.

"You can buy a $50,000 SAN with 4.5TB of ATA disk or a million-dollar system with 4.5TB of Fibre Channel disk. It just depends on the components you put in there," Sink says. He adds that it's also important to project your data volume growth for about 36 months and make sure your equipment will meet your needs.

Wait a Minute

Passmore acknowledges that midrange storage systems are a great buy. "They are cheaper on a dollar-per-gigabyte basis," he says. But, he warns, there are a lot of misconceptions about the true affordability of midrange storage systems, particularly when it comes to their ability to fulfill large enterprise needs.

"Midrange arrays are smaller and have less inherent horsepower than high-end arrays," Passmore says. "If you're building a large, complex environment, you'd need more of those smaller arrays, which means you'll have more to manage. You don't build volumes across arrays, you build them across a single array."

And unlike midrange arrays, high-end arrays such as EMC's Symmetrix, Hitachi's Lightning and IBM's Shark come with multiprotocol connectivity for Ficon and Escon mainframe connectivity as well as iSCSI. Midrange arrays are usually dedicated to one protocol only. The only exception to that rule in the midrange market is NetApp, which offers high-end Ficon, Escon and iSCSI connectivity on its FAS line of arrays, Passmore says.

Another area in which high-end arrays beat out midrange arrays is in asynchronous or synchronous long-distance replication of data, which requires consistency checks, or the ability to ensure that data sent across long distances is consistent with the original data.

In the past 18 to 24 months, vendors have pioneered significant advancements in long-distance replication in their high-end arrays. It's now possible for high-end arrays to maintain consistency across large applications running SAP or Oracle on 20 or more servers, says Passmore.

To maintain an application's performance over long distances, the application must go ahead of the remote copy of data, and that requires a substantial buffer or cache. "Midrange arrays can't do this," he says.

The bottom line, Passmore says, is that for many users that need shared storage, either midrange or high-end arrays fit the bill. But for very high scalability and performance, midrange systems continue to lag behind their bigger brothers.


High-end storage sales revenue: $5.023B

Units sold: 10,543

Midrange storage sales revenue: $6.851B

Units sold: 168,015

Source: Gartner Inc.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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