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Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Scale-Out Storage Scales Down For SMBs

Scale-out storage isn't just for big companies anymore. Vendors are making the technology available to SMBs by reducing its cost and complexity.

Scale-out storage has historically appealed to either large enterprises or tech-savvy do-it-yourselfers. On the commercial side, most scale-out storage products have been designed for big institutions looking to supplement their über-expensive consolidated storage arrays. DIY'ers are typically big cloud services, like Google, Amazon and Rackspace, or research labs, which either roll their own software or build systems out of open source components.

For SMBs, the big impediments to adoption of scale-out storage--which marries 1 and 2U storage nodes with a distributed file system and central management console, gluing nodes together into a unified storage pool--have been cost and complexity. However, a number of vendors are tackling both problems in order to make the technology usable for even one-person IT shops.

Well-funded startup Exablox validates the SMB scale-out storage market. Like most entry-level scale out systems, the Exablox OneBlox is quotidian, although attractive with its colorful LCD screen: a 2U cabinet with eight drive bays and four Gigabit Ethernet ports. But as my colleague Howard Marks noted in a recent column, "The secret sauce behind the Exablox OneBlox is that it relies on an object storage back end that lets Exablox provide enterprise storage management features, including snapshots and deduplication."

If the file system is Exablox's secret sauce, then its cloud-based management console is the special ingredient unlocking all the flavor. A live Exablox demo with Sean Derrington, senior director of products, illustrates that the company's claims of five-minute installation and auto-configuration aren't exaggerated. Unlike most NAS systems, there are no RAID levels, LUNs or volumes to configure as the system automatically pools drives, which can be a mixture of SAS, SATA or SSD, within the same global file system.

[Get tips on DIY storage in our continuing series. Read the most recent installment, "DIY Storage Part 4: Building Redundancy."]

With standard features like deduplication, snapshots, data encryption, WAN replication and an efficient, distributed object store exposed via the familiar, easy-to-use CIFS/SMB NAS protocol, OneBlox seems a bargain at a starting price of under $10,000 for a single, 32-Tbyte unit or $40,000 for a replicated four-node 64-Tbyte disaster recovery configuration.

Indeed, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, an organization serving the technology needs of 17 organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park, concluded that an Exablox deployment is cheaper than designs using products from NetApp or Dell and saves eight to 10 hours per week in management time.

While Exablox may be the hot new kid on the block, it's got company in the competition for SMB scale-out storage business. For example, Gridstore typifies the small scale, bare-bones simplicity that appeals to SMBs. Its 1U storage bricks come in either 2- or 4-Tbyte capacity, with a single Gigabit Ethernet port and self-configuring distributed data and control planes, all managed through a familiar interface--a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in. This is great if you want an easy way to build a small, reliable distributed storage pool, but it doesn't have the upside capacity headroom or advanced features of Exablox. Still, a small enterprise needing 10 or 20 Tbytes of redundant, easily expanded storage could do a lot worse.

Another vendor with solid SMB credentials getting into the scale-out storage business is Netgear, which last year introduced a line of ReadyData storage appliances using the powerful ZFS file system. Leveraging a mature and rich open source platform like ZFS allows Netgear to deliver an impressive set of features at a bargain basement price. Acting as either an iSCSI target or NAS filer, ReadyData appliances include snapshots, block-level replication, compression and deduplication, SSD caching and thin provisioning. The 12-bay rack-mount system, sporting a quad-core Xeon processor with 16 Gbyes RAM, dual 10 and Gigabit Ethernet ports, can support up to two 24-bay expansion chassis. (Netgear also offers a six-bay desktop version.)

With a bare system running $5,800 and an expansion chassis going for $3,400 on Amazon, using 3-Tbyte enterprise SATA drives (widely available for about $150) yields a base of 36 Tbytes of raw capacity for under $6,000, maxed out to 180 Tbytes (using the expansion boxes) for a cool $20,000. Considering the inherent scalability of ZFS, which has been used to build petabyte-sized volumes and namespaces, Netgear's approach allows small businesses to start with six-bay systems with a few terabytes and scale up to multiple rack systems and expansion chassis with a petabyte or more.

The core of every scale-out storage system is a distributed data store. But with the software technology widely available through open source code bases like ZFS and Ceph, expect to see scale-out storage pervade smaller and smaller markets. With cheap commodity hardware--Netgear actually puts a very capable i3 Ivy Bridge processor in its entry-level box--and storage now running around $50 per terabyte, it means building massive storage pools has never been cheaper or easier.

With the hardware guts for scale-out storage nodes so widely available, the glory will go to those that can wrap it in a coat of software simplicity. For enterprises that aren't yet sold on cloud storage, the goal of making an on-premise set of storage bricks as easy to use, expand and manage as Google Drive is now achievable.

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