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My Awards Ceremony, Part 3

by Administrator on February 22, 2011

Now, I will continue my awards-giving arc with a special recognition to Xiotech for what I regard as the Storage Hardware Product of the Century:  The Hybrid Intelligent Storage Element (ISE).

To set things up, two things.  First, an extract from my next column at discussing the Hybrid ISE platform.

Certain things need to be done close to the disk to guarantee performance, resiliency and bang for the buck. Most other “storage functions” need to be done off array – delivered as share-able services across infrastructure broadly rather than being dedicated to a single stand of disk drives.

The developers over at Xiotech understand this. [The] company has recently announced new product with all the ruffles and flourishes of a “shiny new thing” – but [one that] stands out in my view as truly strategic.

Xiotech makes storage hardware – the Intelligent Storage Element (ISE) line that I have covered here before – but they eschew most of those “value-add” software features that their brand name competitors insist on embedding in their internal controllers. They have focused instead on building a product and a value case that appeals to intelligent, not desperate, consumers.

Xiotech’s latest entrée is Hybrid ISE, which integrates some Flash SSD components with its disk, as well as technology for using the SSDs, not as disk targets, but as adjuncts that optimize subsystem performance. The company has, for the past several years, utilized RAGS, their own patented array-making technology, rather than RAID as a means to pool disk resources and to provide a basis for data migration and replication (protection). RAGS uses disk cell coordinates instead of traditional cylinders and tracks as a means to “virtualize” all available disk space. You hear ISE mavens using the metaphors of “books,” “pages” and “sheets” to describe read/write operations.

With the latest Hybrid ISE, when a sheet of space containing data gets “hot” – that is, when multiple concurrent accesses are made to the data on a specific location of the disk – ISE automatically moves that data into an SSD where access-related I/O can be handled more effectively. When the data “cools,” it is moved once again down to a spindle. The result is another bump in the already industry-leading performance story around Xiotech rigs, which engineers at the company have lately begun calling “storage blades” or “bricks.”

Bricks is a good description. The Hybrid ISE fits well with ISE 1.0 infrastructure (bricks without SSD) and enables the creation of a field of storage building blocks that can be treated as one or more single disk drives. This infrastructure can be “surfaced” for use as NAS or Block using 1-u rack servers designed by Xiotech for this purpose, or using any number of available virtual controllers or software NAS plays offered by third parties. Bottom line: the field of bricks scales effortlessly and presents itself to applications using an elegant meme.

In the past, I have gushed over Xiotech’s innovative application of Web Services REST-ful management, which it calls CorteX – substituting this standards-based approach for a proprietary API or clumsy SMI-S provider. I last wrote that I could manage several petabytes of storage using an iPhone, iPad or any browser-based client using ISE Manager.

Turns out that this smart design choice keeps paying dividends. ISE is getting smarter both as a function of innovative management apps like ISE Analyzer, and customer-developed apps contributed at – an open forum where Xiotech publishes its code for everyone’s use.

Down at Xiotech’s development center in Colorado Springs, they are working toward making bricks capable of “friending” each other: that is, making each brick capable of understanding the capabilities and status of other bricks to better load balance and tier data across an ever expanding infrastructure. They are planning to leverage this capability to capturing granular information about how apps use the ISE field of bricks so they can auto-provision the right flavor of storage to an application based on what the application historically requires.

That blows the socks over HP’s claims to provide “disk profiles” to more readily allocate the right storage to applications. It also lends credence to Xiotech’s claims to have a three-decade lead over its competitors in terms of dynamic storage provisioning and to possess a native ability to provide VMware with the storage services its guest machines need automatically – while competitors scramble to support the hypervisor’s new vStorage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI) primitives. (VAAI is a clumsy workaround to the knotty problems that VMware has created by getting in the path of all guest machine I/O. It now enables certain storage instructions like back end replication to be offloaded to an array that is smart enough to understand yet another storage API developed for vSphere.)

ISE is an example of what a vendor can do when its sales model is less about recurring warranty and maintenance revenue and more about delivering to the customer a top notch product that doesn’t break, doesn’t quit, performs well and delivers what is likely to be the best return on investment of any “enterprise class” storage rig in the market. But, before I start to sound too much like a cheerleader, it is worthwhile to look at what Xiotech’s failure to load up their rigs with “value-add” capacity management functionality means to the consumer.

In a word, nothing. Conversations with the firm’s VP of Technology, David “Gus” Gustavsson, and with CTO Steve Sicola and maestro technologist Rich Lary, suggest that quite a lot of careful consideration has been given to what is and what is not a “constituitive” meaning of storage subsystem hardware. Things like thin provisioning, de-duplication, on-array tiering, etc. – much as consumers may view them as desirable components of a one-stop-shop approach to building storage – have nothing whatsoever to do with the foundational operation of storage itself. In fact, such technologies often fall into the categories of “eye candy” or “workarounds to other problems that vendors have created for themselves on their arrays” or “tactical fixes to data management failures.”

More often than not, value-add functions are placed on array controllers to increase the price of commodity disk while providing no real improvement in value. Over time, they lead not to the realization of good storage architecture – in Xiotech’s vision, a generic “field of bricks” comprising components with predictable performance and linear scalability and all managed in common to simplify provisioning and de-provisioning as needed – but to a profoundly different storage model, characterized by isolated islands of storage with no predictability in terms of performance and scalability, no common management method, and a huge associated labor and warranty cost model.

The second bit of information I want to offer to make my case for this choice is a set of videos that I shot recently for the site featuring Richie Lary and Steve Sicola, two of the brainiacs most directly responsible for ISE — both originally and in its latest flavor.  Here are some of the video clips from my interviews.

Like my earlier chat with Ziya Aral at DataCore, the interview with Rich and Steve is a bit geeky in parts (which I happen to like). But it goes deep into the historical context of ISE and the design decisions and architectural elements that make it the most innovative hardware rig I have seen to date.  Period.

So, while I can’t see how anyone would disagree with me (though I am sure some folks will), Xiotech is getting my Best Storage Array of the 21st Century (so far) award.  Congrats to Steve and Lary and the rest of the team.  More interviews to come…

Hybrid ISE from Xiotech: Best Storage Rig of the 21st Century (so far)


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