• 08/27/2014
    12:15 PM
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The Rise Of White-Box Storage

Low-cost, generic storage based on original design manufacturer boxes is gaining ground in the storage industry.

When EMC announced its ViPR storage gateway last year, its list of supported hardware included "white-box storage." In many ways, this is a tacit recognition of the changes the industry faces in storage hardware platforms. The implication of white box is low-cost, generic gear.

To understand the white-box storage trend better, let's examine traditional storage arrays. They all use similar components, but there is a proprietary twist to how these are used. For example, not only are the hard disk drives "enterprise-class" with SAS interfaces and other features, but they are sold only to OEMS and sometimes have proprietary hooks in them, such as identification codes. The result is a whopping markup on the drives, both by drive vendors and by the array providers.

Then along came SSDs. All SSDs are much faster than the fastest hard drives. This fact has uprooted the decades-old storage tiering of primary fast HDD and secondary slower HDD and replaced it with primary SSD and secondary bulk SATA HDD. The latter are currently around three cents a gigabyte, while SSDs are about 50 cents per gigabyte on the Internet, which is less than the OEM cost of a traditional enterprise HDD.

A note to avoid confusion: Most SSD to HDD comparisons are between SSD and cheap 1TB hard drives, which is typically the only cost data available. That ignores the huge performance difference and is the equivalent of comparing a Ferrari and a Ford Explorer. The correct comparison is between SSD and the fastest enterprise (SAS) HDD.

Pricing, and price/performance, wouldn't be enough to upset the apple cart, though. The other key technical factors at work are the very structure of the array and the migration to alternatives to RAID.

The base computing for an array (sometimes called the head node) has migrated to an x86 CPU base, though ARM has made a recent showing. This means the RAID head is essentially a server, and that lowers the technical barrier to entry almost completely.

At the same time, RAID is running into a wall of problems due to long rebuild times for very large drives. We are up to two parity drives (RAID 6) and now looking at erasure code systems capable of tolerating as many as six simultaneous drive failures.

As an alternative to RAID, new replication systems have garnered a huge market segment, especially in cloud computing. These object stores use cheap servers and drives in huge quantities and have excellent data integrity results.

The success of the cloud has highlighted how storage hardware is made. Large cloud providers such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have cut out the middlemen and now buy their gear direct from the Chinese ODMs that for years made boxes for the big-iron storage vendors. These CSPs are essentially replacing EMC and others with direct buying.

It's clear that the direct-buy method -- which is keenly watched by enterprises -- is stable and rugged enough for broader access. The ODMs are beginning to open up their own branded outlets in the US and selling through distribution. These white-box products are rarely actually white and unbranded; they constitute products from a set of suppliers competing mainly on price while generally offering the same features and even the same software. (Ceph software, for example, runs on any COTS hardware, including white boxes.)

Larger enterprises, especially those with a foothold in China, have looked to more direct ODM relationships, while the Open Compute Project is pushing designs from large cloud users such as Facebook into general availability.

The final strike at traditional storage hardware is the trend toward software-defined storage, which is aimed squarely at COTS hardware platforms. If we add all this together, it's clear that we are moving rapidly to a commoditization of storage, and subsequently a major lowering of prices.

With the demand side of storage set to explode over the next few years, it's not likely the total revenue of the storage market is going to shrink much, but I think we'll see a radical restructuring of market share, with new names entering the market.



Hi Jim -- What might be some potential drawbacks with white-box storage?

Re: drawbacks?

I've bought a lot of OEM storage product, and the consistent issue with white-box is support. That might be a surprise, since quality comes to most people's minds, but in fact the whitebox makers are often volume suppliers to US OEMs or to the CSPs like Google, so it isn't a big problem.

Support is  something that takes time to figure out, espcially if your previous business model was OEM. The new entrants to the US market had best plan for hiring seasoned local professionals to handle that part of the business.

Another issue is a quality problem, though. Selecting drives isn't just a case of contacting Tiger Direct! There is a cascade of product quality from OEMs through distribution to web retail. This is more of an issue with hard drives than SSD, for a whole raft of reasons. Buying the cheapest drive is not always the right thing. If you are buying a lot of drives, go to a master distributor. This will provide good quality most of the time. 

Re: drawbacks?

Thanks for those details Jim. It seems that the support issue could be a real problem, especially for SMBs that don't have a lot of resources.

Re: drawbacks?

Marcia, I think that type of issue sorts iteself out, especially in the Internet era. Poor vendors tend to get the sort of publicity they hate, and the buying public learns to avoid them.

For a small premium, buying from good known distributors solves a lot of problems.  Vendors help by listing qualified drives, and WD tests their drives on vendors' gear aggressively. Their FIT lab is a byword for compatibility testing.

Re: drawbacks? What is old is new again

Way back in the dark ages, or in the 90's/2000's we used to build little white boxes for storage because that was the most cost effective way to do it.  a 9gig hard drive was about 2k by then, way down for the mid 90's of 7-9k depending on performance.  Some things just have to be reinvented but with storage so cost effective and in the cloud where do you think this will really go?

Re: drawbacks? What is old is new again

For a lot of users, the hybrid cloud model is the one they'll follow.The problem of transporting data backa na forth between the cloud and the datacenter means any other alternative doesn't work.

That means lots of drives used in datacenters still. The whitebox will be the way to house them for a good portion of users. Just as with Linux, not everyone is going to drop their big-iron support, and certainly not overnight. With whiteboxes,buying from distribution, the finished storage appliance will be considerably chepare, but support costs higher.

Re: drawbacks? What is old is new again

With the recent hacks on celebrity photos what are your thoughts on cloud security vs. on premise model and we should include the hybrid model too?

Re: drawbacks? What is old is new again

Jeff, Security is a substantial question. Some comments: First, many users don't follow even simple guidelines...Password1 is the most common password! Second, the cloud guys generally do address security well. It would be a business show-stopper if they were hacked very often.

Hybrid clouds have there own challenges, mainly discontiuities between security approaches, plus a weak security in transit. 

Storage security  for data at rest needs care too. just assuming that your CSP's system protects you is dangerous. For example, an encryption system where the CSP owns your encryption keys probably violates HIPAA, and isn't too smart!