Big-time Storage on the Cheap

Late last year, Ameritrade Holding'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 US$50,000 to about US$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.

"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.

The trend downward is also revealed in vendor sales. EMC 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, a US$5.7 billion technology US based reseller, 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. 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' 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.

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