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Did Xiotech Over-Engineer Its Emprise Storage System? Insights from Day 2 at Chicago Storage Decisions

Yesterday I completed my quick road trip to Chicago to attend TechTarget’s annual spring Storage Decisions conference returning home last night. Here are some the highlights from my day 2.

I started out the day with an hour-long briefing with Xiotech’s CTO Stephen J Sicola and Storage Architect Peter Selin. Xiotech has been talking up a storm about the ground-shaking importance of its new Intelligent Storage Elements (ISE) ever since Xiotech announced it at Storage Networking World about a month ago. However Xiotech and I have not had a chance to connect for me to take a close look at its architecture so Stephen and Peter spent some time talking me through it.

One of the factoids I found most intriguing was the history (at least as Steve tells it) why Xiotech (and Seagate behind the scenes) felt obligated to go back to the basics in designing the ISE that underlies its new Emprise stroage system. One of the more interesting aspects to the story was the history of placing disk drives into storage systems. Apparently when disk drives were first placed into storage systems, they were not designed them for vertical insertion – always horizontal. So when disk drives were placed vertically in storage systems to optimize rack space, they started failing more frequently.

Another key problem had to do with mounting and cooling the disk drives. Again, disk drives were designed for mounting in stable (non-vibrating) racks as standalone units with ample air flow for cooling. However, when putting tens or hundreds of disk drives into a rack, not only is air flow around the disk drives reduced, but the vibration of all of these spinning disk drives in the same rack is amplified leading to higher disk drive failure rates. So the disk storage systems have compensated over the years by making tweaks in their firmware and controllers to offset these variances and minimize the impact of failures.

Xiotech’s Sicola felt it was time to go back to the drawing board and re-examine the design of everything from the disk drive firmware to how they were mounted in storage systems to the controllers managing them. He started this process nearly 6 years and the result is the ISE found in Xiotech’s Emprise storage systems. Key changes it makes are more stable mounts for disk drive placement and replacing the disk drive’s native firmware with its own firmware for more pro-active monitoring and the transmission of storage system reports to Xiotech.

Though there were many others, sending the activity reports to Xiotech caught my attention because Xiotech will now monitor activity on your systems and notify companies not just when drives fail, but warn them when it detects abnormal activity on their Emprise system that may contribute to degraded application performance. For instance, if a company places a high performance Oracle database on SATA disk drives, the reports sent back to Xiotech should detect this activity and Xiotech should in turn warn the company that not only should its Oracle database not reside on SATA disk drives, but that this level of activity could lead to degraded performance and SATA disk drives on the system failing prematurely.

So what do all these new features mean for users short and long term? Because Xiotech makes the Emprise more resilient, they have extended the warranties on their systems from 3 to 5 years while its upfront costs are comparable to other systems. This should allow companies to depreciate these systems out over five years rather than three. This can lower quarterly depreciation costs and, since the underlying disk drives are theoritically more reliable, there is a lower chance of disk drives failing and hence less risk to your applications.

The main question companies need to ask themselves about Emprise is not about its stability and reliability but did Xiotech over-engineer this system? Five years is a long time in the technology industry and can span as much as three generations of technology improvements (assuming new technology is introduced every 18 months). This can leave a company with book value on a 3 year old storage system should a need to upgrade it to more current technology. This could require the company taking a financial hit on the books even though the Emprise is still a viable storage system. Overall, though, Xiotech’s Emprise should give companies pause about their current vendor’s storage system and think more deeply about how their current storage systems are archtitected and if going from a 3 to a 5 year warrantly makes sense.

My next meeting was with Omneon’s Director of Storage Marketing, Dave Frederick. Omneon is a 10-year old, $120 million storage company primarily dedicated to providing storage for the broadcasting industry so I inquired of Dave why his company’s sudden interest in attending Storage Decisions. He said that more Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies are now broadcasting video internally  and this is creating a new demand for storage systems specifically designed for the broadcasting industry.

So I queried Dave further to understand further how high transaction environments differ from broadcasting since both call for near 100% availability. Dave explained that there are two fundamental differences between broadcasting and high transaction environments. Broadcasting accesses data sequentially while high transaction environments tend to access data randomly. However, the larger difference is that if there are pauses in high transaction environments (even milliseconds), the transaction can be resent. This is not so in broadcasting. It even one frame is missed (30 frames are sent every second), you don’t get a second chance and those types of misses (called black spaces) result in missed SLAs and loss of revenue for broadcasting companies.

It is in this way that Omneon’s MediaDeck Integrated Media Server storage differentiates itself from competitive products. Though it uses a grid storage architecture, it also includes an out of band component that verifies each frame as it is encoded and decoded so that when a broadcast is sent out, it streams the video without a black spaces.

Finally, my other notable meeting for the day was lunch with representatives from the LTO consortium: Quantum‘s Product Marketing Manager, Tom Hammond; IBM‘s Senior Program Manager, Bruce Master; and HP‘s Product Marketing Manager, Rick Sellers. Most of our conversation focused around how the use of tape is changing in environments and that while disk is becoming the primary target for backup, companies still need to exercise some caution about using disk exclusively for backup. All of us were aware of recent examples where companies had both their primary, secondary and, in one case, even a tertiary DR site affected by disasters that required the use of portable media in order to recover their environment at still another site.

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Jerome M. Wendt

About Jerome M. Wendt

President & Lead Analyst of DCIG, Inc. Jerome Wendt is the President and Lead Analyst of DCIG Inc., an independent storage analyst and consulting firm. Mr. Wendt founded the company in September 2006.

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