StorageTek packs it in with blade design

There are two things you can count on with most new disk storage products — capacity will go up and price per gigabyte will go down. This is certainly the case with the recently announced BladeStore disk array from Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek), but the way the vendor is pulling off this double shot is a little different from usual and may signal a new trend in storage design.

To some extent, StorageTek is tearing a page out of the server industry's playbook by using the "blade" concept in the design of its new disk array. In the server world, a blade is a board that contains all the parts of a single server, from central processor to Network Interface Card. Multiple blades are plugged as needed into a server chassis, packing lots of computing power in a small box.

With this model in mind, StorageTek built BladeStore so that it uses up to 10 removable storage blades per cabinet. Each blade consists of five 160G hard drives, a microprocessor, memory and network interface. The minimum configuration is five blades per chassis, and the customer can plug in more blades as storage needs grow.

With BladeStore, "StorageTek has brought to market one of the more innovative storage products in recent times," said Roger Cox, a chief analyst with Gartner Inc. "Most vendors do the same thing [with new products] over and over again, just using faster processors and higher-capacity disks, but the architecture remains the same."

Just as important as the blade design is the fact that BladeStore uses inexpensive Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) PC disks, instead of more costly SCSI or Fibre Channel disks typically used in enterprise storage systems.

"We make the [ATA] disks on the blade look like a single Fibre Channel disk, so that if a customer has an application written to support Fibre Channel, this slides in in a nondisruptive way," said Mike Koponen, product marketing manager with StorageTek.

ATA-based disk arrays have been on the market for only about a year, but are making inroads quickly, analysts say. One of their primary uses is to streamline the backup process by having them serve as a temporary staging area for data that migrates from expensive primary online disk systems to off-line archival tape systems.

Another use is as a longer-term repository for so-called fixed content data, such as e-mail, which doesn't change much but is still accessed rather frequently, making off-line tape storage a less desirable option.

Several major storage vendors have rolled out ATA-based storage arrays, including EMC Corp., Quantum Corp. and Network Appliance Inc. One of the knocks on ATA is that its throughput performance — how fast data can be read or written — lags behind that of SCSI and Fibre Channel disks.

"ATA disk drives inherently have a latency issue when it comes to the demands of online storage," said Joe Rigoli, a research analyst for storage systems at IDC. "One way to get around that latency issue is this blade architecture, where you have more than one disk drive per blade."

A loaded BladeStore with 10 blades will begin shipping this month and will cost $145,000.

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