Storage pooling

In the coming years, storage is expected to grow ever more complex. A relatively small company, new to the scene, believes it has what it takes to face up to the obstacles and emerge as a major player in the industry.
Written by Thomas Chen, Contributor

Singapore - Sometime in September last year, Seagate approached a small U.S. company with a proposal to buy the company's storage technology. The company refused.

When Seagate returned again later that year, it was to buy the company over.

With the acquisition complete, the storage company - Xiotech, grew from a mere 65 employees to over 250 in less than a year; and with recent Asian hires, it is poised to aggressively enter the Asia-Pacific market.

The directive from Seagate is, after all, for Xiotech to grow as fast and as aggressively as it could.

A relative newcomer to the storage scene (Xiotech shipped its first storage unit in April of 1998), Xiotech may not occupy a leading position in the industry as do EMC or IBM. But with what it believes to be a potent storage architecture and killer application, the company may just have what is needed to resolve some of the challenges in the industry, and perhaps even revolutionize how storage is done.

There was a time when the pressing challenge of a storage solution was to be able to do all the back up's and copies without having to schedule any down time.

The challenge is still there, and storage solution providers each negotiate the problem in their own way with varying degrees of success.

However, an even greater challenge may now face the storage sector, and that is, the amount of data required to be stored is set to explode more than exponentially over the next few years.

Depending on which report you read, capacity requirement is set to grow between 75% to 1000% per year through to the year 2003.

Some of that growth is reflected in enterprises' spending on storage solutions.

An IDC research indicates that more companies nowadays spend more on storage than on servers. The trend is expected to continue till spending on storage takes up to about 75% of an organization's total IT needs.

Companies handling gigabytes of data today may well find themselves on top of terabytes of information a few years down the road.

"Obviously, what you need," said Richard Blascheke, Xiotech's executive vice president of marketing, "is a storage solution with infinite scalability."

Add this explosion of storage to the task of maintaining 24x7 uptime and you have a gargantuan task on your hands.

And not many qualified people are on hand to solve that problem for you either. Every study and report in the past has indicated a shortage of trained IT personnel to handle the needs of the digital economy even as it is.

What is required is clear. Storage solutions need to be simpler, more efficient and infinitely more scalable.

According to Blashcheke, no less than a shift in paradigm regarding how storage is managed will be needed to face up to the demands of the storage explosion.

"We cannot afford to take the same paradigm that we have been living with for the last fifteen years," observed Blashcheke. "It's got to change."

Storage expansion has always been handled in a pretty straight forward way. You buy the additional capacity, the hardware, the software, and when the capacity becomes too large, hire another administrator to oversee the extension.

The game plan ends up building massive storage systems whose environments are complicated by data coming in from heterogeneous platforms and hardware.

And an administrator is supposed to know and be able to navigate all of this.

"And if the environment is complex, the people will have to be highly skilled, highly trained, in order not to make any mistake and bring people down," said Blashcheke.

It will not be easy finding such people.

"Till this day," Blashcheke added, "no business owner can look me in the eyes and tell me that they can find the IT people that their organizations need."

As such, as storage becomes bigger and more complex, storage solutions will have to become simpler and easier to manage.

Xiotech believes they have the answer with virtualization.

Virtualization relies on a whole new way of architecturing storage from the ground up to deliver what is essentially an ability to pool all the storage from different devices and platforms into one central pool, and manage it from there.

The configuration of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Discs) racks demonstrates clearly the versatility of such a schematic.

On a typical RAID rack, most vendor designs would not allow the alignment of different capacity discs on the same rack.

Those who do, would take the least common denominator, which is, the disc of the lowest capacity, to define the rack. Additional capacity from larger discs on the same rack is lost.

With storage being managed from a central pool, such a hurdle does not exist. Instead, the storage server can just mix and match discs of different sizes from the same rack and utilize each of their individual capacity, be it 9, 18 or 36 GB.

Striping data across all available spindles, virtualization is able to create virtual disks that will utilize all storage capacity in the system.

By doing so, many traditional hurdles of storage management are overcome, including the need to shut down the system for routine system administration.

With the right software, a system administrator will be able to expand capacity, add heterogeneous servers and change RAID levels, all while the system is online.

"True storage virtualization is going to be the killer technology in network storage down the road," said Blashcheke. "Centralizing storage into a pool that will allow people to efficiently use all of the capabilities and all of the capacities of every single physical drive is going to be paramount for people to keep their cost in line."

Xiotech has only just begun to play in the international market with an office set up in Japan just over a year ago.

For now, the company does not expect to have a strong direct presence in Asia Pacific and plans instead to work closely with partners and reseller channels.

Still, the company has recently hired a regional manager to head the office in Singapore, and hopes to expand international business enough to make up 25% of the company's gross.

Headcount is not expected to be high. However, by the middle of 2001, the company expects to have another 3 to 4 hires in Asia dedicated to this region.

"A lot depends on when we find the right people," said a company executive, "we have a pretty specific view of what skills we need."

As for Japan, the company already has a number of customers including Matsushita and Osaki Bank.

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