Compellent Makes A Strong Case In Midrange Storage

Compellent Technologies is a player in the midrange storage market that does not get the recognition that it deserves. The reason for that is simple: When customer attention turns to storage, their first focus is on the large players, such as EMC, HP, IBM and NetApp, whose market presence and mind share, wide product diversity and strategic visions tend to dominate (and rightfully so) any discussions of how the storage market is being shaped. Next come startups and emerging companies that focus

David Hill

January 18, 2010

8 Min Read
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Compellent Technologies is a player in the midrange storage market that does not get the recognition that it deserves. The reason for that is simple: When customer attention turns to storage, their first focus is on the large players, such as EMC, HP, IBM and NetApp, whose market presence and mind share, wide product diversity and strategic visions tend to dominate (and rightfully so) any discussions of how the storage market is being shaped. Next come startups and emerging companies that focus on a hot new technology in the hopes that they may be the next Data Domain (data deduplication) or Riverbed (WAN acceleration), or the surprise player in emerging SSD and cloud computing markets.

While this state of affairs is understandable, storage companies that have been successful, but are neither very large nor have the shine from participating in what is considered to be the hot topic du jour do not always receive their due attention. That is unfair, since their success means they have developed/delivered appealing products that have corralled a large number of customers.

Despite being ignored or dismissed, these companies can also fundamentally shape the market:

  • By introducing new functions or features that the larger players are slow to adopt, such as thin provisioning (3Par) or automated storage tiering (Compellent).

  • By partnering with some larger players (such as on an OEM basis) to offer products, functions and features that the larger players would not otherwise have access to, such as FalconStor.

  • By offering products or services that fill a void or niche that larger players do not or no longer devote a lot of attention to, such as GlassHouse Technologies in services and Spectra Logic in the highest end of tape libraries (where Oracle-Sun StorageTek used to be very strong).

  • By taking a different tack to a market (Zmanda and cloud backup storage).

  • By refusing to assume that a well-defined market segment dominated by large players cannot be a competitive (and profitable) market for them, as well, such as backup and restore software (Acronis, Arkeia, and CommVault, among others) and midrange storage (Compellent, among others)

The latest financial results for Compellent (from Q3 FY 2009, ending September 30, 2009) showed revenues of $89 million for the first nine months, up 39 percent over the comparable period for the preceding year, and the company was profitable. Given the economic climate for 2009, those results would be remarkable for any company anywhere. What makes them even more remarkable is that they succeeded in the highly competitive midrange storage market, although Compellent claims enterprise-class functions and features, such as scalability and availability, for its products.

Compellent sells through channel partners exclusively and faces direct competition from EMC and NetApp, both of whom have very capable and large sales forces. In addition, numerous other strong competitors exist, including Dell (EqualLogic), HP, IBM, NEC, Promise and Xiotech. However, Compellent must be doing something right as it claims an installed base of over 1600 customers. What is it about the company that is so compelling (sorry, but the one thing that I can't resist is pun temptation!) to its customers?

Compellent sells one product: Storage Center, which stands both for the product itself and the operating system. Compellent has just announced Storage Center 5, the fifth iteration of its flagship product, which is a Storage Area Network (SAN) that encompasses all the necessary components of a SAN, including third-party switches, disk controllers and disk enclosures.Since Compellent was founded in 2002, it had the advantage of being able to design its Dynamic Block Architecture from the ground up. This architecture manages all data at the level of 2MB granularity, with options for 512KB and 4MB, which requires effective management of the metadata that is associated with the block. The metadata includes such information as what physical disk the data resides on, whether the data is the original customer production copy or a snapshot copy, time-stamping the frequency of access of the block, and what tier of storage the data is on (where the fastest tier is solid state disk (SSD), the next-fastest tier is Fibre Channel or SAS hard disk drives, and the slowest but most cost effective tier is composed of SATA drives). Given this information, policies can be put in place to use a data movement engine to automatically move a 2MB block to the most appropriate tier of storage. Of course, customers have the power to override the system. The default time to evaluate whether or not data should be moved between different storage tiers is 12 days.
This movement of inactive data automatically to different tiers is an instantiation of familiar Hierarchical Storage Management (HSM). The advantage of this approach is that, for example, new e-mails can be kept on a higher storage tier and older e-mails, which over time are a much larger volume, can be moved to a lower tier. This saves money, since lower tiers offer a better cost per unit capacity than higher tiers, without causing any problems to users since the e-mail application can read all e-mails regardless of where they are physically stored.

Now theoretically old data, which follows a long-tail distribution of access, such as a Michael Jackson interview, might become highly active again, but even SATA drives can handle a decent workload and overrides can be put in place in rare situations to accommodate that kind of demand. Special circumstances like these make manual data movement too difficult, time consuming and expensive for companies to consider. That is why companies, such as EMC with FAST, are now moving to automated storage tiering. But Compellent can well claim that with Storage Center automated storage tiering is built in and not added on, as well as being at the sub-LUN level rather than the LUN or volume level.

LegosLand Building Block Approach
Compellent uses a building block approach where the modular components, such as disk controllers and disk enclosures, are backwards compatible, allowing new items to be integrated seamlessly. For example, with the newest version of Storage Center SAS disk shelves (i.e., disk enclosures) are now available but customers can still keep their old Fibre Channel (FC) or SATA disk enclosures. Moreover, the disk enclosures are cost effective, just a bunch of disks (JBODs) solutions to which Compellent adds software RAID for necessary data availability.

Now "religious" arguments can be had about software and hardware RAID, but the pragmatic approach is to go with what works and software RAID seems to work just fine for Compellent and its customers. The company doesn't force a product swap-out when the customer wants to take advantage of the functions and features of new-generation solutions. That not only offers investment protection to the customer, but also simplifies the whole process of upgrades. Compellent rightfully claims that the future is built into its solutions.
This is not to say that Compellent does not offer new things with each release, but features tend to be additive to what is already available. One example is Portable Volume. When setting up a disaster recovery site, the problem is how to move the data from the original local site to the remote site for the first time, a process which requires that all the data be replicated. After that initial process, only incremental changes are needed which can be handled over a communications link, but the initial replication of terabytes or more of data might be too time consuming and expensive over a standard network. Portable Volume is really about copying data to removable disk (i.e., the Portable Volumes) at the local site and then physically moving them to the remote site to cost-effectively facilitate the replication process.

In addition to Portable Volume, SAS drive enclosures that scale from 6 to 384 SAS drives with a choice of 450 GB drives at 15K RPM or 1 TB drives at 7200 RPM. The Dynamic Block Architecture uses storage virtualization so all storage (SAS, SATA, FC, and SSD) can be mixed in a single, virtualized storage pool.
Storage Center 5 also adds RAID 6, which can handle two instead of one nearly simultaneous disk failures before rebuilding completes, but with a twist called Data Progression. Incoming data is initially assigned to a high-level tier with RAID 10 (disk mirroring with striping for performance), and then when the data becomes inactive it is stored on a lower tier using RAID 6. Note that RAID 6 is new to Compellent, but Data Progression has been a capability for some time.
Storage Center 5 also offers some new capabilities, one of which is the ability to manage consistency groups within its Dynamic Replay Architecture. Consistency groups are necessary to be able to do time-consistent recovery of data that has been spread over multiple volumes. Another capability, called Server Mapping, enables the use of rapid thin provisioning of volumes for multiple virtual servers simultaneously. Finally, new Virtual Ports extend virtualization to physical ports for improved bandwidth utilization while still providing high availability.Some people may not be impressed by a company that goes from no revenue to roughly $100 million in annual revenue in six years but I am not one of them. Relatively few companies ever reach that level starting from scratch. Whether or not Compellent Technologies can overtake any of its larger competitors in the midrange storage market depends upon too many variables to be predicted today. However, overtaking competitors does not have to be its goal nor should its success be measured by such artificial means.

More important to consider is if Compellent's customers are happy with its products, and they seem to be, and whether it continues to have innovative ideas that will keep its competitors from becoming complacent. Most importantly, do larger competitors want to adopt Compellent's solutions in some form for their own customers, and are other young small companies trying to emulate Compellent's success? Since Storage Center is Compellent's primary solution and revenue source, the company needs to watch competitors very closely. That said, Storage Center 5 suggests that Compellent should continue to be an effective and successful player in the midrange market.

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