SGI ups the SAN

Ask anybody to name the companies that made the greatest impact on storage, and it's quite possible that one of the most significant names will not come up. I am referring to Silicon Graphics (SGI), a company that (as you may already know) has an enviable track record and top-notch solutions spanning supercomputing, servers, workstations, OSes, and, yes, storage.

SGI's announcement of a new storage array (more on that later) gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with Laura Shepard, marketing manager at SGI's Storage and Software Group, and Craig Schultz, product line manager at SGI's InfiniteStorage line of hardware products.

Asking for an overview of a company like SGI is very much like asking the Queen of England to provide a resume, but I am glad I did because our conversation quickly became an interesting journey across some of the most important milestones in the storage industry.

"Our philosophy is to design technology to enable the most significant scientific and creative breakthroughs of the 21st century," says Shepard, adding that SGI's focus is to innovate for the most demanding customers and then deliver that technology to larger markets.

SGI backs up those bold statements with a list of remarkable accomplishments: a long page of bullet points each starting with "first system vendor to..." For example, did you know that SGI shipped the first 1Gb SAN in 1998, followed by the first 2Gb SAN in 2001? And although there has been much clamor about SAN file systems lately from companies such as Apple and IBM, to name just two, SGI has been offering CXFS (a SAN file system) to its customers since 1999 and has more than 400 installations, according to Shepard.

In storage, even the most striking results are short-lived because competitors eventually catch up. However, Shepard points to last year's as-yet-unmatched and most significant achievements, which include SGI's shipping of the first 10Gb NAS and being the first to demo a 4Gb SAN.

If you are following the evolution of ILM (information lifecycle management), it's also interesting to note that last year, SGI made APIs available for its DMF (data migration facility) system. Why is that important? Because developers can use those APIs to give business applications unprecedented control over data movement -- another first for SGI, says Shepard.

Although we didn't have enough time to finish it, this overview of SGI set the stage to talk about the details of the new InfiniteStorage TP9700 array, which was announced early in February.

It's a rack-mounted 4U box with dual RAID controllers that SGI developed in partnership with Engenio, and it doubles performance levels over the previous model, explains Schultz. The two controllers, each with 1GB cache, provide a redundant access path to each drive, he adds.

Currently, customers can mount a variety of drives as long as they are FC (Fibre Channel), but later this year, the InfiniteStorage TP9700 will also mount SATA drives for more efficient use of storage. This is a must-have for a unit that, like previous models, will be deployed in a variety of SGI systems, including DMF, NAS, and SAN.

Interestingly, each controller hosts four 4Gb FC ports, which gives the array an incredible aggregate connectivity. Both Shepard and Schultz concede that 4Gb on each port can be overkill in a transactional environment, but some SGI customers that move large multimedia files can use the extra speed.

At a starting price of around US$70,000, purchasing the InfiniteStorage TP9700 calls for some slick budgeting, but in some installations its eight built-in connections can attach directly to hosts, which will save you the cost of deploying fabric switches.

I am left with a couple of thoughts after my conversation with SGI. One is that the company probably wants to expand "its delivery to larger markets."

The second thought? Well, not even Her Majesty the Queen has such an interesting CV.

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