Prepare for the era of the data center in a box

Start-up SimpliVity touts an all-in-one array, its OmniCube

While several of the largest storage vendors, such as EMC, Hewlett-Packard and NetApp, have entered into agreements with server, software and networking vendors to offer bundled products, purpose-built products are just beginning to emerge.

For example, last year start-up Nutanix unveiled a virtualized server that is clustered together with solid-state and hard drive storage, all of which can be managed under a single console view.

Today, start-up SimpliVity came out of development phase with its first product, an all-in-one array that can act as a VMware server, deduplication appliance and as primary and backup storage.

And, at VMworld next week, expect to see storage vendor Scale Computing exit its development stage and demonstrate its HC3 "datacenter-in-a-box" for mid-sized companies.

"The trend is beginning to take shape," said Arun Taneja, principal analyst at The Taneja Group. "I expect this trend is bound to happen, due to the fact that Intel is now providing such a strong dose of compute [power] for such low prices that storage simply can't use all the cycles available. So why not use those cycles and simplify the infrastructure to boot."

Over the next two years, what Taneja calls the "HyperConvergence" of computing, storage and networking will see a massive uptick in adoption, particularly among small to mid-sized businesses, which have fewer IT personnel to manage increasingly complex infrastructures.

"I expect 2014 to be the year of HyperConvergence, with 2013 as the year of education, proofs of concept and early trials, along with initial purchases for production. Then 2014 should open the floodgates," he said.

Enter SimpliVity's OmniCube

SimpliVity's new converged OmniCube is a 2U (3.5-in. high) array that comes standard with eight 3TB hard disk drives and four 250GB solid-state drives (SSDs), which act as accelerators for hot data, such as OLTP databases or VDI environments. The number of hard drives versus SSDs can be adjusted depending on performance or capacity needs.

SimpliVity is marketing its array as hardware that can eliminate the need for third-party appliances for backup and primary data deduplication. Those appliances include WAN optimizers, cloud gateways, caching hardware as well as all-flash arrays, according to SimpliVity CEO Doron Kempel.

SimpliVity's OmniCube array is aimed at VMware admins at mid-sized enterprises.

OmniCubes are deployed in a 10GbE network of two or more boxes. A single VM administrator can manage all the OmniCubes in a cluster from a single management interface: the VMware server virtualization management UI.

OmniCube plugs into VMware's vCenter hypervisor, and simply becomes another tab that an administrator clicks on to manage all the virtual machines (VMs) on the array.

Adam Winter, president of IT service provider SwiftecIT in Shrewsbury, Mass., is currently beta testing two OmniCubes. Over the past four years, Winter said his company, which hosts applications, has grown to three data centers hosting 30 servers and 20TB of networked storage on arrays from three companies: Dell EqualLogic, QNAP Systems and Drobo. His servers are virtualized using VMware.

Winter said he likes the tight integration with VMware's Vcenter software, which allows his administrator to see server, storage and backup environments through one management interface.

"We don't need to deal with different interfaces for every device," Winter said. "If I want to set up storage, all I have to do is load the GUI and manage the storage and then use a different GUI and manage the switch, and then another GUI to mange the VMs."

Power savings, too

Winter envisions the potential for 80% power savings by changing to OmniCubes.

"We own our building, so I see the energy bill every month and say, 'wow,'" Winter said. "The benefits of OmniCube are pretty clear. You're talking about going from all those pieces of equipment to two."

Along with energy savings, Winter said deduplication will help save on storage capacity and backup times. For example, his company now runs 20 copies of Windows Server R2. That means everytime he performs a full backup, the company is storing the same 20 copies of Windows. With deduplication, and a multi-tenant architecture, one version of Windows Server R2 would be shared among clients and only one copy would be saved during backups.

Additionally, if Winter wants to replicate his VMware environment to his disaster recovery site, it means using Veeam Software to replicate 100GB of data, because none of the data is deduplicated or compressed.

The OmniCubes not only deduplicate and compress data, but they have continuous data protection that takes snapshots and moves them to a remote disaster recovery site, where they can be stored as a full backup.

"When I click on the OmniCube tab for VMware, I not only see my local virtual machines, but I also see all the snapshot copies and the copies in my DR site," Winter said.

Taneja said while IT infrastructures as a whole have gone to more open concepts, that hasn't lead to a more consolidated infrastructure. And, while each element of a data center, such as virtualized servers and networked storage systems, has its merits, when viewed in totality, they still end up looking like "a mumbo jumbo of gear."

While large IT organizations can afford to throw money at the problem of managing separate pieces of gear, smaller organizations only have IT generalists who can't hope to cope with a "maze" of equipment.

"Given all this, I think it is time to consolidate compute, networks and storage in a way that simplifies the life of an administrator, especially one in mid-size or smaller companies," Taneja said. "This is what SimpliVity has taken on. It is indeed transformational in nature."

To date, SimpliVity has raised a healthy $18 million in capital from Accel and Charles River Ventures. Part of the reason for SimpliVity's venture funding is its founder's long history in the storage market.

Kempel has worked in the industry for more than a dozen years. He was the CEO of Diligent Technologies, the maker of an in-line de-duplication appliance, before IBM purchased the company in 2008. IBM now uses Diligent's technology in its ProtecTIER data deduplication appliance.

Prior to Diligent, Kempel was the general manager of EMC's Media Solutions Group until he took a job in 2001 as CEO of storage software start-up SANgate Systems. EMC subsequently filed a lawsuit to enforce a non-compete clause against Kempel, and he was forced out.

The OmniCube business case

The business case behind Kempel's new company and its OmniCube is not unique.

Through its so-called Virtual Computing Alliance (VCE), EMC and its VMware subsidiary partnered with Cisco in 2009 and began selling a bundled product called Vblock. Vblock integrates Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) servers and networking switches with EMC storage arrays and VMware vShere hypervisor software for public and private cloud services.

EMC rival NetApp has its own bundled offering called FlexPod, a reference architecture that combines NetApp's FAS storage platform with Cisco's server and networking gear and VMware software. HP has its VirtualSystem, Dell, its vStart bundles.

OmniCube is different from other offerings in that it was built from the ground up and can be deployed as only storage, or as an all-in-on IT stack that includes a virtual server instance with primary and backup storage and block-level primary deduplication.

"SimpliVity started with a clean sheet of paper, and is attempting to architect a purpose-built set of infrastructure specifically designed for the new world order of virtualization -- with all its mobility, mixed workloads and variable performance requirements," said Steve Duplessie, founder and lead analyst for market research firm ESG.

Because data centers are built on a single-stack architecture, where separate pieces of hardware are aimed at specific applications, silos of data have been created.

When server virtualization took over, IT managers had to "retrofit 50 years of hardware architecture" to support the mixed bag of applications. "And stunningly, we have problems," Duplessie said, with a note of sarcasm.

Scale Computing, located in Indianapolis, Ind., is currently beta testing a scale-out product that converges x86 compute nodes with RedHat's KVM hypervisor and disk storage arrays.

"You can start with three nodes and add more, as needed, to increase compute or storage performance/capacity," Taneja said.

Relative to SimpliVity, Scale Computing will be targeting smaller IT shops that may or may not have server virtualization. "Hence KVM does the job very effectively for that market (lower cost, more than enough features and simplicity). Otherwise, the concepts are similar to SimpliVity," Taneja added.

OmniCube's block-level primary dedupe

OmniCube also separates itself from rivals, Kempel said, by deduplicating data at the 4K and 8K block level before it's even placed into a file format and written to the internal storage. That way, no further deduplication, compression or data rehydration is ever needed, he said. Data rehydration is the process by which deduplicated data is restored from backup appliances.

By deduplicating and compressing data up front, OmniCube also becomes a type of WAN optimization appliance, Kempel said, though it does not optimize the TCP/IP stack as other appliances from Riverbed or Silver Peak do.

VMware's VMotion data migration tool allows data and virtual machines to move between OmniCube arrays, which allows a VMware admin to increase application performance by porting VMs to OmniCubes with more SSD, Kempel said. Data on existing, third-party servers and array can also be migrated onto the OmniCubes using the same VMware tools.

The OmniCube also adds storage tiering, which takes frequently accessed data off hard drives and places it on the internal SSDs to speed up I/O performance. Additionally, the array migrates data to another OmniCube for high availability or replicates asynchronously to a remote disaster recovery site or a cloud service provider for resiliency.

The OmniCube is based on standard x86 server hardware, but the software allows data to both be served up to applications as well as held on internal capacity as primary storage.

Data replication is tied to the native backup engine in OmniCube. The policy you set for the VMs dictates when and how often you send backup copies offsite. The replication is then acting on a static backup copy, while the live VM continues in production.

"I can't tell you if they will ultimately be successful, but I am convinced that someone has to take this approach in order for us to truly move on to the next phase of commercial computing," Duplessie said. " It will take a new, ground-up architecture to make this all work. Everything else is ultimately just putting band-aids on the problem and hoping it goes away. But in this world it never does. It just shows up somewhere else tomorrow."

The OmniCube is powered by OmniStack, the operating system and the accelerator PCIe card. OmniStack is designed so it can also power any commodity direct-attached storage server. OmniStack can also handle software-only configurations in the public cloud without the hardware acceleration.

Kempel said he's still working out pricing for the product, which is expected to be available in November.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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