Discussing all things virtualization and storage in the data center.

What makes it enterprise?

Something that akro, an RM reader, said in response to one of my recent posts got me thinking.  We were talking about wide striping and some other cool stuff that the EVA has been doing for a while now.  Specifically akro mentioned the idea of sticking some EVA controllers in front of a high end array and seeing what magic could be done.  Made me think a little.

First of all it made me think of 3PAR and their so called enterprise offering, the Inserv Storage Server – can you stick a bunch of modular arrays together with a fancy interconnect and call it enterprise?  Anyway, a little more on that later.  But eventually it got me thinking what actually qualifies an array as “enterprise”? 

I thought of a few things that I had normally associated with enterprise storage arrays -

  • Reliability and availability
  • Performance
  • Scalability
  • Size
  • Cost
  • Lack of cool features

First up, reliability.  While I was growing up in IT, “five nines” was always synonymous with expensive enterprise gear.  Basically that sort of kit was built not to go down.  If you were to ask the guy in charge of it how long it took to boot, you might well be met with a response along the lines of “why would I know that, we haven’t booted this thing in 10 years”.  Whereas your typical modular kit would be up and down like a yo-yo in comparison.  So, in my neck of the woods “five nines” was always synonymous with enterprise kit.  Then along comes Chuck and his ramshackle mob, recently announcing “five nines” availability for the CLARiiON CX3.  Of course Im also aware that Hitachi guarantee 100% data availability on their current crop of high end arrays.  So it seems five nines no longer gets you automatic access to the “enterprise club”.

Next up - performance.  At least three years ago now I knew of an EVA 5000 that cleaned up in a foot race against a vastly more expensive “enterprise array”.  So even 3 years ago it blatantly wasn’t sheer speeds alone that qualified you.  If only the enterprise kit on sale that day was as fast as its salesmen, those guys were like greased lightning to point out that their box scaled better than the EVA ;-)  We’ll get to scalability in a minute……..

What about size then?  Im going to resist all of the easy puns, but suffice it to say that the only people concerned with size are well…….  Anyway, these days size (Im talking about storage capacity really) is in the eye of the beholder.  For example, on initial inspection the DMX-3 appears to blow the competition away in this category.  If there was one storage array out there that you wouldn’t want to bump into in a dark allay, it would be the DMX-3.  But then all the folks out there externalising stuff off the back of a Tagmastore might offer a different view of errr …. size.  Whereas the DMX-3 might have a set of shoulders like Arny, the Tag on the other hand may seem a little puny in comparison, only its not as simple as that.  The Tag has “connections”, if we keep with the analogy of not wanting to cross one in a dark alley, we might say that the Tag “knows people” and put them together and you wouldn’t want to mess with it either.

And to be honest, Im seeing a lot of small USP’s going into companies these days, one or two frames to start with.  Not very big but still classed as enterprise storage.  In fact, I wonder how many fully loaded DMX-3’s have been shipped and how many USP’s have those infamous gazillions of Petabytes hung off the back?

Cost?  Sure the official price tag will still make most companies step back in horror.  But who pays list price these days?  I hear a lot about deals being done extremely cheaply these days.  It’s the in thing to play your current vendor off against the rest and you might be surprised at how cheap you can get your storage.  Of course that’s the initial purchase, and as sure as eggs are eggs it will get a lot more expensive once the kit is on the floor ;-)  In fact Ive heard “rumours” of one vendor giving some of their enterprise kit away just to get or keep their hairy sweaty foot in the door.

Lack of cool features.  I used to find that the enterprise boxes were a big, cumbersome and a bit boring.  Too big and bulky and based on ancient code, written and understood only by retired or dead people, that nobody dared to tinker with and add functionality to.  Well that’s changing these days with Hitachi redefining their enterprise offering by putting loads of new functionality into the controller.  Love or loath the Tag, it does quite a bit of cool stuff these days.

Now to scalability – Akro’s comment made me think a lot about 3PAR and what they are doing with their Inserv Storage Server, allowing you connect up to 8 modular arrays over a proprietary switching interconnect and letting you manage them as a single entity.  Sounds good.  Managing 8 modular arrays as one allows it to scale similar to an enterprise box both in capacity as well as processing power.  May be this a modular offering with enterprise scalability?

But does it bring the flexibility and ease of use and maintenance that you (I) expect from modular?  Apparently not.  Im reliably informed that configuration is mainly manual, quite labour intensive, requires sound understanding of the underlying architecture and is prone to complex configurations and errors.  A lot different from the bulk of my modular experience, the EVA, which was so simple I had to actively stop the Exchange admins from getting their hands on it in case they realised just how easy my job was.

Anyway, the single biggest thing that I can’t get passed when looking at the 3PAR kit is the use of commodity parts.  And when I say commodity parts Im talking about bog standard Intel chips on a PCI-X architecture.  To me it just looks too much like a PC to be enterprise.  I wonder if I can partition one of the internal drives and boot Windows on it during free processor cycles (I hear it actually runs a version of BSD under the hood)?  And with that commodity approach comes a lack of manly grizzly enterprise stuff like cross-bar switches, dedicated parity generating ASICs and the likes.

But the 3PAR does sport one truly enterprise feature – you cant just send an operator into the machine room to replace a failed disk.  Like all good enterprise storage arrays you’re supposed to be a trained engineer to be able to do that.

So for me a couple of things remain as hallmarks of enterprise storage –

  • Specialist components (it has to look nothing like a PC inside, or an AIX cluster for those IBMers out there)
  • Huge internal power (cache, bandwidth, processing)
  • Rock solid copy services and replication software
  • Oh and may be poor management software and tools ;-)

Nigel

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