Storage Soup


February 21, 2008  11:13 AM

New SSDs are on their way

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

Or so says Pliant Technology, a new company that just received $8 million in Series A funding. It’s comprised of former execs from storage companies including Maxtor, Quantum, Fujitsu and Seagate.

The cast of characters is as follows:

  • Jim McCoy, Chairman – Co-Founder of Maxtor and Quantum
  • Amyl Ahola, CEO – Former CEO of TeraStor, vice president at Seagate and Control Data
  • Mike Chenery, President/Founder – Former vice president of advanced product engineering at Fujitsu
  • Doug Prins, Founder/Chief Architect – Former consultant for Fujitsu, Emulex, and Q-Logic
  • Aaron Olbrich, Founder/CTO – Formerly at Fujitsu and IBM

And that’s just about all we know in detail right now about Pliant. I spoke with McCoy this week about the announcement of funding; he said the company has decided to come out of stealth now, but has been working on perfecting the solid-state drive for the last two years.

The new company is aiming to improve the solid-state drive with its products, which are due out by the end of this year, with alpha and beta testing scheduled beginning this summer. Pliant’s drives will perform better than current flash drives, “closer to what the DRAM people have,” McCoy claims. The drives have also been “designed for a 24×7 operating environment, with error rates equal to or better than hard drives.” Specifically, the drives are going to tackle an issue McCoy says has been a dirty secret in the solid-state game: read disturb, a phenomenon in which reading data from one portion of a flash drive causes degradation in nearby bits.

Existing solid-state vendors have tried to address this problem, as well as issues with write endurance, using error correction codes (ECCs). But according to McCoy, ECC is not enough. “ECCs are a minimal starting point,” he said. “By themselves, they are not sufficient.”

If that gets you all wound up about the state of solid state, though, you’re going to have to wait to find out how exactly Pliant plans to build a better mousetrap. The specifics of its technical approach are “confidential at this point,” said McCoy.

Will the new and improved Pliant drives be able to do anything about the acquisition costs that are keeping many users away from solid-state drives right now? “There won’t be much of a price penalty over other [SSD products],” McCoy said, which I’ll take as a no. McCoy did point out that long-term, solid state is more cost-effective than over-provisioning hard drives.

The problem is, users rarely start from scratch; many will have over-provisioned hard drives already, and would need to start by adding very expensive SSDs on top of already very expensive assets. “Customers are reaching the end of possible performance with hard drives,” McCoy countered. “And new systems [like EMC’s Symmetrix] are going to start going out with a combination of drives.”

According to research from IDC, performance and mobility-related requirements will propel SSD revenues from $373 million in 2006 to $5.4 billion in 2011, a 71% CAGR. And I’ve heard many in the industry lament that while the capacity of spinning drives has been going up continually, the ability to get data off those drives faster is not keeping pace. Something will obviously need to change.

Meanwhile, the answer to the question of exactly how Pliant’s products propose to be a catalyst in that equation remains in stealth for now.

February 19, 2008  12:03 PM

Open-source grid storage project goes commercial

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

Some of you may have heard of Cleversafe, until now an open-source research project working to develop the prototype of a system that would automatically spread data over geographically dispersed grids while encrypting it.

Cleversafe has been making slow but steady progress over the last year and a half or so and have been keeping me updated. Their concept, is an interesting one: a way to automate the “chunking” of data over geographically dispersed nodes through new algorithms that also make each chunk of data unreadable, essentially combining primary storage with disaster recovery and data security all in one go, as our friends across the pond would say.

So far, Cleversafe has launched itself as an open-source project, invited developers to play with the Dispersed Storage Network (DSNet) prototype, and signed up 14 internet service provider (ISP) partners to pilot the service. This spring, those partners will begin to sell some actual software and hardware to go with the pie-in-the-sky concept.

The new products, which will be generally available May 31, include a storage node, called the Cleversafe Slicestor; a storage router, called the Cleversafe Accesser; and a software management console called the Cleversafe Manager. Each Slicestor will hold 3 TB raw in a 1U pizza box. There is no formal restriction on the number of Slicestors and Accesser nodes in one grid, but the first products will be offered in groups of 8 and 16 nodes, with a 4:1 ratio of storage to router nodes recommended. The nodes can be kept in a single rack in one location or distributed globally. Cleversafe says its business model will be to offer its grids directly to enterprises, as well as ISPs and managed service providers who can offer Cleversafe storage as an online or hosted service.

This is the kind of stuff that really intrigues me in the storage market–the kind of stuff that makes me envision Conan O’Brien with a flashlight under his chin singing “In the Year 2000…” The futuristic stuff. As a general, all-around nerd, it’s interesting to me to talk to the people planning the next generation of technology, to learn what the challenges are and what goals their sights are set on. The Cleversafe concept is a particularly interesting one to me given the global-scale DR challenges we’re beginning to face.

When we chatted about it last week, though, Taneja Group founder Arun Taneja tempered my enthusiasm with the reminder that future products are just that: in the future, and the proof is in the pudding. “At the concept level I’ve never had any issue with Cleversafe,” he said. “But while the concept is interesting, provability will take a long time.” Cleversafe must show its product can support multi-tenancy environments reliably, without mixing up data chunks, and must show that its performance and ability to recover data are what it says they are.

And while some of the deepest innovations in technology are happening around storage, Taneja also reminded me that the market for storage products remains more conservative than most. “Even if Cleversafe can prove that this is the best thing since sliced bread, the GMs, Fords and Pepsis of the world would have to test something like this for years before they’d trust it,” he said.

So we might not be looking at The Storage Internet ™ anytime soon. But I’m going to keep watching.


February 15, 2008  3:25 PM

Another service-provider infrastructure gets the hiccups

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

Amazon’s S3 online storage service suffered an outage this morning for several hours, echoing the outage suffered by email service provider RIM last week. While RIM’s outage affected CrackBerry addicts with alternatives to email, the Amazon outage may have affected Web-based companies relying on S3’s storage to deliver core services. Not good.

However, one S3 user I talked to today, SmugMug CEO Don McAskill, said his site didn’t feel a thing. “None of our customers reported any issues–we haven’t seen any problems that are customer facing,” he said.

But there’s also an important factor that may have led to SmugMug’s resiliency: the fact that after another outage last year, SmugMug started keeping about 10% of its data in a hot cache on-site. “It could have been that the hot cache was adequate for the 2 or so hours it was going on, or it could have been that for some people the outage was intermittent,” he added.

Meanwhile, some users were still reporting issues as recently as five minutes ago on Amazon’s Web Services Developer Connection message board. According to an Amazon.com official response on the thread about an hour ago, “This morning’s issue has been resolved and the system is continuing to recover. However, we are currently seeing slightly elevated error rates for some customers, and are actively working to resolve this.  More information on that to follow as we have it.”

Their businesses aren’t the same, but I think this ties in with what I was saying in my post about RIM’s Blackberry meltdown–as more and more data “eggs” put into centralized service provider “baskets”, more and more of them are going to get broken, especially as the service-provider market ramps up.

Or as TechCrunch put it:

This could just be growing pains for Amazon Web Services, as more startups and other companies come to rely on it for their Web-scale computing infrastructure. But even if the outage only lasted a couple hours, it is unacceptable. Nobody is going to trust their business to cloud computing unless it is more reliable than the data-center computing that is the current norm. So many Websites now rely on Amazon’s S3 storage service and, increasingly, on its EC2 compute cloud as well, that an outage takes down a lot of sites, or at least takes down some of their functionality. Cloud computing needs to be 99.999 percent reliable if Amazon and others want it to become more widely adopted.

Growing pains may have had something to do with it, according to Taneja Group analyst Eric Burgener. “There’s less of this going on than there used to be, but this is one of those things that gives people pause about services,” he said. A focus on secondary storage and storage for small companies has made this crop of service providers more successful than the SSP’s of the bubble days, and even where companies are relying on services like this for primary storage, Burgener argued that the services option is still the better bet. “For small internet businesses services are still a perfect play–they allow businesses to start up rapidly without the kind of capital expense or infrastructure they need for an in-house system.”


February 15, 2008  11:59 AM

A storage reporter’s shameful secret comes to an end

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

I feel the need to make a confession here. Up until yesterday, despite spending a generous portion of my waking hours covering data backup, disaster recovery and data protection, I myself did not have a backup plan.

I do digital photography in my spare time, and creative writing outside work, and I’ve been a digital music addict since the advent of Napster. So I have about 100 GB on two IDE drives inside a Windows XP machine custom-built for me by a highly geeky friend. And it’s just been sitting there, waiting to be snatched away into the ether.

Then another friend of mine told me about how his MacBook hard drive crashed. On his birthday. While he also had the flu.

He told me how his entire visual design portfolio, an important part of his resume for the business he’s in, has been lost, along with all of his digital photographs, many of which he didn’t have posted on Flickr or stored anywhere else.

He went on to tell me that his costs for trying to recover the data from the drive are going to run him upwards of $2,000–if he’s lucky. It could be cheaper, but that would mean less of his data has been recovered, and so now he finds himself in the position of hoping he’ll have to spend more money.

It’s a bittersweet subject for him that so many people he knows, myself included, have credited his experience with finally getting them off their butts and backing up. But that’s the reality.

I ended up going with the 500 GB Western Digital MyBook, because that’s what my friend also ordered once he learned his lesson the hard way, and he’s far more technical than me, so I trust his judgment. The MyBook came with Memeo’s AutoBackup and AutoSync software, of which I’m only using the former. It also came with a bunch of Google software including Google Desktop, which I found rather odd.

Having covered data storage for the enterprise, I’ve had a chuckle whenever I’ve checked on the initial backup job’s progress. Granted, it’s got a QoS feature that cedes system resources to the PC, but let’s just say I’m not seeing the kind of data transfer rates with this thing I’m used to hearing about. It’s been funny, after being immersed in systems that perform at 8 Gbit or 10 Gbit for a few years, to watch my little PC poke along at what seems like 1 MB/hr, if that.

But still. At least I have a backup. Finally. And I can finally rid my closet of that skeleton.

Now my issue becomes off-site disaster recovery. It’s far more likely that my hard drive(s) will crash than that my house will be napalmed or something (knock on wood), but no sooner had I told Tory that he could stop bugging me about backup, than he started bugging me about taking the drive to my office once the data transfer is done.

But the AutoBackup software, like so many low-end and consumer backup offerings, is set to automatically backup changed files, and what I told Tory was, I like having a low RPO over here. And I made that napalm comment, I’ll admit (I can just feel karma coming to get me). So I’m thinking about some kind of backup SaaS for off-site DR, but capacity with those services is at a much higher premium than it is in 3.5 inch external SATA. And so you know what that means…data classification!

I may be poking along at 1 MB/hr, but it all feels like a slow-motion, small-scale version of the issues I cover every day. It’s interesting to see firsthand how “Digital Life ™” is, in fact, blurring the boundaries between home and business computing.


February 14, 2008  3:19 PM

Blackberry outage a storage issue?

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

As approximately the last person in the Western Hemisphere not to own a PDA, I escaped the Great Blackberry Outage of Aught Eight last week, and got to have that much more time to be smug about my lack of dependence on such a thing before I inevitably get one and grow so dependent on it I need Tommy John surgery on my thumbs.

This week, though, the plot thickened for storage folks as it was revealed that the outage was caused by a failure during a systems upgrade. According to Reuters, the outage was caused by an upgrade to a data routing system inside one of the company’s data centers. In the past, RIM suffered an outage to its Blackberry service because of cache upgrades. Drunken Data auteur Jon Toigo thinks they’re still having storage problems, and cites an AP report on MSNBC saying the failure happened during a system upgrade designed to increase capacity.

Meanwhile, Reuters seems to imply that at heart, data growth is what bit RIM. “RIM has been adding corporate, government and retail subscribers at a torrid pace and has had to expand its capacity in step to handle increased e-mail and other data traffic. Its total subscriber base sits at about 12 million according to latest available data.”

The fact of the matter is that no system is failproof–but I think Reuters brings up a good point. We’re opening up new frontiers in massive multi-tenancy and creating new and unprecedented demands on computer systems; we’re also consolidating data into the hands of service providers like RIM. My sense is we’re going to start seeing more of this kind of issue as these trends continue, especially as more and more new services come online. So maybe I’ll just rely on good old dinosaur Outlook for a little while longer.


February 14, 2008  2:49 PM

Of wizards and storage skills

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

After my posts on militant dolphins and black holes, you could be forgiven for taking that headline literally, but this time I’m referring to the software kind of wizard, not the pointy-hat/ Harry Potter kind.

What prompted this post were two stories I saw this week. First, Reldata announced new adaptive software wizards for its storage gateways and I had an in-depth conversation with the company’s CEO, David Hubbard, about that very subject. Second, everyone’s favorite, Storage Magazine, ran a trends story this month headlined “Storage staffing shortage looms.”

Reldata’s adaptive wizards are a little different from some of the others companies like HP have announced for low-end products, in that they’re not just there for setup. Rather, the adaptive wizards are there for several stages of deployment for the gateway’s iSCSI SAN functions (NAS, replication and clustering wizards are still on the to-do list).

We’re hearing a lot about ease of use these days; even I have been guided through setting up volumes on disk arrays from emerging storage companies by way of proving, “See! Anyone can do it!”

But are we headed toward the point where that will literally have to be true?

Continued »


February 12, 2008  2:03 PM

Dell keeps it in the family

Dave Raffo Dave Raffo Profile: Dave Raffo

When Dell purchased  email archiver MessageOne for $155 million today, the computer giant didn’t have to welcome the small startup into the family. MessageOne has been in the Dell family from the start, literally.

MessageOne was co-founded by Adam Dell, brother of Dell founder Michael Dell. Michael Dell also had a financial interest in MessageOne. The Dell founder, his wife, parents, and a trust for his children are investors in two investment funds that backed MessageOne. Adam Dell manages the funds, and served as MessageOne’s chairman.

So when the smoke clears after the deal, Adam Dell will receive around $970,000, Michael Dell, Susan Dell and their children’s trust will receive a total of around $12 million; and Dell’s parents will receive around $450,000. According to the press release Dell issued announcing the deal, the $12 million paid Michael and Susan Dell and their children will be donated to charity.

To the Dells’ credit, they disclosed these numbers in the press release. The company also claims Michael Dell was not involved in the negotiations for MessageOne. Dell’s directors – excluding Michael Dell and CFO Don Carty – handled negotiations and received an opinion from Morgan Stanley & Co. that the price was fair to the company.

You can expect Michael Dell to be especially careful, considering the company had some accounting problems with the SEC in recent years that were part of the reason the founder came back to replace Kevin Rollins as CEO. And the acquisition will have to pass muster with regulatory agencies. Still, the results of this deal will be watched especially closely over the next few months. While Dell can easily justify acquiring email archiving and storage software as a service (SaaS), there will be questions about whether the price was right — even if it is merely tip money compared to the $1.4 billion paid for EqualLogic.

So if Dell doesn’t see a quick boost from MessageOne’s products and services, Michael Dell will have explain more than why the integration is taking longer than expected. He’ll have to convince investors and skeptics that the deal wasn’t just a nice payday and perhaps a lifeline for his brother’s company.


February 11, 2008  4:43 PM

Okay, so where’s the SMB data migration already?

Tskyers Tory Skyers Profile: Tskyers

Don’t know if I can compete with militant dolphins and black holes that eat France, but I’m going to give it a shot.

First, I need to define constraints before we dig into the meat: What I consider a small to medium-sized business (SMB) is a company that would have a problem justifying a $50,000 purchase for a product that would perform a migration then have no use for it for 3 to 5 years until they migrate again, or have one to two IT people doing the work, or think a SAN is just a typo for SAN-D that you’d find at a beach. I know IBM, Sun, Symantec et al. have migration services but I’m looking at the smaller business space where people need to store more on tighter budgets that were small to begin with.

We’ve recently upgraded our SAN infrastructure and while our data migration chores aren’t all that intense, I’d still prefer that a computer did it. I’ve built some tools to handle my cleanup work (I’ll share them as soon as some bugs are worked out) but only because I couldn’t easily buy something to do the same or better. Now I’ll admit that sometimes I can be blind or ignorant (or both), but I’ve noticed a HUGE gap in the availability of migration tools for the lower end of the SMB spectrum. With me being a part of The Matrix like I am, or akin to Mr. Universe from Serenity, one would think I’d have caught a whiff of something significant.

Continued »


February 8, 2008  12:30 PM

Pillar’s funny, but will storage admins take it seriously?

Dave Raffo Dave Raffo Profile: Dave Raffo

For a company known primarily for spending hundreds of millions of Larry Ellison’s Oracle bucks, the folks at Pillar Data have a good sense of humor.Take this video Pillar put together for its Application-Aware Storage release this week: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Kx0w7fYx4

Funny. But I have a feeling that a lot of storage administrators might have similar reactions as those at the malls and McDonald’s did to Pillar’s claim that it’s the first to offer application-aware storage. Application awareness is helpful but not new in storage, let alone “game-changing,” as Pillar claimed when it announced it this week.

“Is this a new feature? Well, not for the industry, but certainly for Pillar,” said analyst Greg Schulz of The StorageIO Group. “Others have tried, including Sun. So for Pillar, it’s new and game-changing. For the industry, well, maybe game-changing for those who have not seen it before.”

But is it even new for Pillar? What Pillar describes in its release — writing scripts that assign an application to either the outside, middle or inside of the disks in a volume — was supposedly in their product from the start.

In his blog explaining Pillar’s application-aware storage, here’s how Pillar CEO Mike Workman describes it: “. . .application-awareness implies configuration of disk, but in the case of Pillar’s Axiom it also implies things like cache configuration, network bandwidth, CPU priority, and layout of data on the disk platters. In other words, all the system resources are tailored to the application — set up to make the application see the best possible disk attributes out of the resources in the array.”

Workman also writes that this is the approach Pillar took when it started shipping its Axiom systems 2-1/2 years ago.

Pillar customer Greg Thayer, director of IT at voice data network provider Comm-Works, says application awareness was a key part of why he bought a Pillar system last September. “It was a compelling reason for us,” he said. “I can characterize my data by what is the most important information that users access, and that goes on the outside of the disk where things are spinning more often.”

But why is Pillar trumpeting a feature that it’s had from the start? Cynics in the industry say the company is trying to generate buzz because of stalled sales. Pillar has watched less funded storage system vendors Compellent and 3Par go public and Dell scoop up EqualLogic for $1.4 billion. For Ellison’s $300 million or so investment, Pillar claims 300 customers — which means it has spent at least $1 million per customer.

Still, let’s hope Pillar sticks around. No other storage company is running videos on YouTube that are nearly as interesting.

It certainly beats watching this guy carry on about server virtualization conspiracies.


February 7, 2008  3:41 PM

Vengeful militant dolphins…and the Internet

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

That, friends, is without a doubt the best headline I’ve ever written.

As many of you are surely aware, underwater Internet cables in Asia were cut last week, one of them by an errant ship’s anchor, and another two (or three–I’ve seen stories that say there were a total of three cut cables, and stories that say there were four)…unexplained.

It all happened last week, but repairs are still ongoing in the region. The cable cut by the anchor has been fixed, and reportedly most of the region of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa that was Net-less has come back online (all those Saharan nomads are surely relieved wireless is back on their laptops again). Fixes to the other cables should be done Sunday according to authorities.

As always when human beings encounter the unknown, their immediate instinct is to fill it in with knowledge or theory as quickly as possible. This story is no exception, and according to this AFP piece, the conspiracy theories are flying fast and furious. Many suspect terrorism, yet no one knows how it would have been accomplished.

All of which leads to the following paragraph, which I will now quote verbatim:

Bloggers have speculated that the cutting of so many cables in a matter of days is too much of a coincidence and must be sabotage. Theories include a US-backed bid to cut off arch-foe Iran’s Internet access, terrorists piloting midget submarines or “vengeful militant dolphins.”

If this blog were the Daily Show, that right there would be your Moment of Zen. 

But in seriousness. While all this is happening, there are no doubt companies suffering a complete outage, and if the estimates for the repairs are true (personally I apply the same projection-to-reality formula for Internet fixes as I do to cable repair guy appointment times), these companies will have been suffering complete outages for at least a week to ten days.

Helpfully, IT companies are reminding us through press releases that most companies are not equipped to survive outages longer than seven days (per Gartner). They’re also reminding everyone that had these companies been using their product(s), and presumably a sufficiently distant secondary site, they would’ve been fine. How that would be if you don’t have a WAN to replicate and restore data, or a network through which to conduct commerce, is beyond me, but that’s really not the point; here in the trade press we expect to get press releases linking IT products to every conceivable natural or worldwide disaster, regardless of how tenuous the link may be.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered…unless you’re a multinational company, how do you survive an outage that big? We’ve all heard about how 9/11 taught people to expand the scope of their DR plans, and Katrina taught people to expand the geographic area they consider potentially disaster-affected when sending tapes offsite. This type of disaster, though, is too big to be escaped by all but the biggest of global corporations. And it does beg the question–how far can DR go? How do you respond to a disaster of global or hemispheric proportions? Many companies are going through a painstaking process of broadening the scope of DR plans beyond their local area as a result of Katrina–should they start planning DR hot sites in Siberia instead?

Yet even as IT shops slowly inch toward better preparedness, disasters, and the global economy, wait for no man. Given our worldwide dependence on the Internet (and imagine what the effect would be if this had happened in North America and Europe), has this disaster suggested a practical limit to technical DR? If so, what’s the contingency plan for that?


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