Raising the storage bar

NEC and Stratus put some heat on the storage industry

Are you satisfied with your storage gear? If not, you might find what you need from two vendors not normally associated with storage: NEC and Stratus.

Stratus is new to storage, but NEC has been selling storage solutions for more than 50 years -- although until now, not in the United States. New or old, both companies are putting some heat on the storage industry.

You may recognize Stratus as a company known for its fault-tolerant servers. The new array, ftScalable, follows the same naming conventions as the ftServers and is in fact meant to be the company's perfect storage companion, according to Stratus.

The new array's 2U size and 12 drives don't look much different from that of others already out there, but its specs tell a different story. With 15K RPM SAS drives and hot-swappable, redundant components (such as its two RAID controllers capable of mirrored writes and active-active failover), the array means business -- business resilience, to be accurate.

The ftScalable also has an interesting twist: Despite mirroring, each block travels only once between cache and controllers because a dedicated PCI-Express link automatically transfers data to the second controller faster than it could if repeating the same trip from memory. This feature makes the best use of the available bandwidth and minimizes latency, Stratus officials explained.

You would expect the ftScalable's cache to be backed up by batteries so that in-flight data could be saved to disk in case of power failure, but Stratus chose a capacitor instead. It offers the same safeguard but doesn't require long recharge times when the power is restored.

As you can see from the back of the unit, the ftScalable offers only FC (Fibre Channel) host connections at the moment, but iSCSI and SAS will likely follow later.

The ftScalable takes the cake for resilience but -- at least for now -- doesn't scale as its name suggests. In fact, you can connect just two more arrays using SAS links, which gives you a total of 36 drives. That's nothing to get excited about, even factoring in future support for larger SATA devices. However, the ftScalable's capacity is probably adequate for its target audience, considering that Stratus positions the array to fit between the EMC CX line and the entry-level AX100. Price should start at or just above the latter, I am told.

If the scalability of the Stratus appliance leaves you wanting more, NEC's new D line announced earlier this month should give you plenty. According to NEC, you should be able to expand this storage system from just over 200GB to well past 1PB (that's a petabyte) without ever having to migrate data to a different enclosure.

Furthermore, with the exception of stretching beyond 144 drives (which requires a new controller and forces you to power off), most of this remarkable update path to more than 1,500 drives can be managed while keeping everything online, NEC explains.

The first update range takes advantage of the 2U controller. Both controllers have a switched cross-bar architecture that supports parallel writes to different drives. A dual, redundant cache can grow from 2GB to 128GB in max configuration, and is protected against data losses by a batter backup. Connection to your fabric starts with four FC ports and extends to 64 FC ports. You can mount any combination of SAS and SATA drives within the same enclosure, and can choose from a variety of RAID options, including RAID 6 or RAID 3 double parity, and triple mirroring.

Why would you want triple mirroring, an option that puts a severe demand on an array's capacity? To maintain the same level of performance even with a double, concurrent hardware failure, NEC says.

If you're interested in learning more about the NEC D-series, you'll find more here. However, let me mention the MAID (massive array of inactive drives) features (the ability to stop inactive drives that's activated for now by a schedule set with CLI commands). According to NEC, in the future the array will save energy using firmware initiated or application-initiated powering off of drives that are idle or no longer needed online.

Will these two new solutions challenge the status quo on storage? Judging from these two products, yes. Although Stratus has perhaps more moderate ambitions, NEC has the financial and technological muscles to give the largest storage vendors a headache or two, and is looking at the rich U.S. and European markets with what seems to be a renewed appetite. Can't wait for the meal to begin.

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