Recent storage system launches – such as EMC’s Isilon roll-out last week – included new generations of Intel processors that provide greater processing power and increased performance. This has become a familiar pattern — the latest generations of processors become available, and soon after storage system announcements follow with the incorporation of the new processor technology.
That marks a major change in storage system architectures. When I started in development for storage systems, custom microprocessors were designed that had special characteristics for handling data movement. The assembler level languages were written for each custom processor, and the surrounding data flow was developed to create the heart of the storage system. It was a badge of honor to have created the custom processor and the programming language for a generation of storage systems.
Over time, the use of special purpose but standard processors became common, as did more general purpose compilers and debuggers. These processors evolved into a separate business with offerings such as the AMD 29000. This took the custom processor design and programming languages and tools away from storage system development, but left the storage application software and the logic around moving the data and the interfaces.
As the progression continued, the use of commodity storage processors along with the support logic chips became prevalent. This has reduced the design demands and provided greater economies for components. Many systems today even use standard or nearly standard motherboards of the type found in servers for the underlying hardware in storage systems. That leaves storage system design to the application software and the hardware configuration. In some cases, the storage application can run within a virtual machine on a physical server.
The move towards commodity hardware was enabled by tremendous advances in the processor speed and functionality. The investment in the server/PC technology can be leveraged in storage, which alone could never sustain the investment required to make those advances. The other side of the coin is that the continual advancement requires the storage system hardware to change along with the new server change, which means that a particular hardware configuration will be offered only as long as the server/PC hardware offering is in new production. That’s about a 12-month cycle at best. New (meaning updated) versions of the storage system hardware will occur on a fairly regular basis by necessity.
This is mostly good for the IT customer. Newer, faster, and less expensive storage systems will continue to be delivered. But it also means that support of the storage systems will have a finite life. There will be a time when it is necessary to upgrade the storage system when a replacement controller is no longer available because the spares stock has been depleted and no more are being manufactured. This causes a bigger concern when planning the lifespan for those systems, the amortization of the investment, and the problematic migration of data.
The updated processors in storage systems such as the one from EMC Isilon are usually accompanied with other advances such as new or improved features delivered with the storage application and newer interface support. So despite the shorter hardware lifecycle, the IT customer does benefit compared to the costs and progression of technology from custom designs of the past.
(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).