Storage Vendors Get Into The Grid Game

Vendors say the shared-file system that underpins most storage grids can lower customer costs and improve file handling.

June 7, 2004

3 Min Read
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Grid computing is catching on, as more companies learn how to treat a bunch of servers as a single pool of computing resources that can be allocated and reallocated as needed. Storage vendors are moving into grid, too. And, while some customers are skeptical, vendors say the shared-file system that underpins most storage grids can lower costs and improve file handling.

Storage technology has made great strides in the past two years, thanks to network-attached storage and storage area networks, which make it easier to view and use all the storage resources in an IT infrastructure. But storage networks are limited because each device has its own file system, requiring extra steps to find and share files. Storage grids, which use a single file system for all storage devices, are designed to overcome that limitation.

"The shared file system allows storage systems to gang together," says Michael Thompson, systems developer at Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects company behind the Star Wars films. Next month, it will move from high-end Silicon Graphics Inc. servers and EMC Corp. Clariion storage to low-cost commodity server and storage grids. The company is deploying more than 1,000 two-way servers that use Advanced Micro Devices Inc. chips and a grid of Network Appliance Inc. storage devices.

It's the file-handling capabilities that appeal to Industrial Light & Magic. "We must get on board with new technology for serving our files," Thompson says. The company made the move to avoid the cost, complexity, and management challenges of a multivendor Fibre Channel SAN. "With Network Appliance, we'll achieve the same performance for one-tenth the price," Thompson says, though he declined to be more specific.

"Storage grids change the way storage is managed," says Jamie Gruener, an analyst at IT research firm Yankee Group. A storage grid will let administrators see and use all the storage resources connected to a network, regardless of which vendor it comes from. It also will let them easily add capacity. "Customers used to buy a tool for such capabilities," Gruener says. "More and more, they're shipping with the product."

Grayhair's Van Horn prefers to use one storage system to ease management.

Grids let businesses easily add low-cost storage from a variety of vendors. But some administrators say that approach poses management challenges. "I'd prefer just one storage system from a management standpoint," says Robert Van Horn, director of IT at Grayhair Software Inc., which provides mail-tracking services to clients with large mail campaigns. "The more you complicate the infrastructure, the more you create multiple points of failure."

Still, Grayhair chose a gridlike storage array from 3PARdata Inc. over a storage system from Hitachi Data Systems after a performance test. The Hitachi system processed around 4,000 operations per second, while 3PAR processed 16,000 operations per second, Van Horn says. The 3PAR InServ operates as a single system, making it easy to add capacity and move blocks of data. Grayhair plans to increase capacity by 50% by this summer, and Van Horn says all he needs to do is plug in 40 new disk drives. He also likes the simple way he can add capacity for specific apps. "We just assign the space we think an app will use," he says, "and the app pulls capacity from a pool as it grows."

There's a downside to the grid approach: a huge increase in network traffic. "We're seeing a 6,000% increase in disk and network traffic," Industrial Light & Magic's Thompson says. But he says that's a minor issue compared with the cost reductions and improved file handling of storage grids.

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