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Server Virtualization Technology Makes Its Way into Storage Systems

A common platform for both server apps and a clustered IP SAN

Storage engineers have a long-standing tradition of pilfering innovations from the server market to create disruptive product improvements in storage systems. This tried-and-true method works because the server market is larger than the storage market and, correspondingly, collects more investment dollars and has more engineers working on server innovations. Storage engineers constantly look for ways to reuse or repurpose server innovations that reduce development costs, speed product introductions, or, in extraordinary cases, break open new product opportunities.

Hardware Disruption Example: Repurposing x86 CPUs as Storage Controllers
The use of server processor chips in high-end storage systems is an obvious example of this borrowing trend. Most high-end storage systems from companies such as EMC, Network Appliance, and Pivot3 use general-purpose x86 CPUs for advanced RAID controller functions, although this silicon was designed for general-purpose server applications. By repurposing this high-performance server silicon as high-end SAN and NAS storage controllers, storage companies eliminate internal chip development expense and leverage the massive engineering investments made by silicon specialists Intel and AMD. This move to off-the-shelf server silicon allows these same storage companies to redirect engineering dollars and engineers to work on software innovations that offered more direct product differentiation.

Software Disruption Example: Repositioning NTFS as a NAS Offering
Server software is also frequently reused to meet the needs of the storage market. A good example would be the NTFS file system designed by Microsoft for the server market. Microsoft realized that the core NTFS functionality could be shipped independently of the more general Windows Server operating system to proliferate NTFS across volume servers, and reach a lower price point without cannibalizing the mainstream server OS. High-volume server companies, such as HP and Dell, resell the repurposed file systems a mainstream NAS offering, which has quickly become the unit volume leader in the NAS space.

Server Virtualization Disruption: Unleashing the Serverless SAN Platform
It would be difficult to name a more disruptive technology in the server market than server virtualization. The $9 billion market value of VMware alone speaks to the immediate concrete savings that customers realize by replacing standalone physical servers with virtual machines that run x86-based hardware concurrently. This powerful value proposition has made server virtualization one of the most quickly adopted technologies in recent memory. So it should be no surprise to see storage architects looking for creative ways to deploy this technology innovation to storage systems.

Why Haven't Conventional SANs Adopted Server Virtualization?
It turns out a conventional storage system can't easily or practically integrate server virtualization technology because there just aren't enough controllers to make it technically viable or commercially beneficial. A traditional storage system contains only one or two RAID controllers that provide data protection for many drives as shown in Figure 1.

Besides providing dedicated data protection for many drives, each controller must have adequate resources to protect all of the drives in case the other controller becomes disabled. The scarcity of controllers also limits the end-customer benefit of sharing the x86 CPU resources since consolidating one or two servers has a nominal impact on a system containing hundreds of disk drives.

Clustered Storage Systems are Uniquely Suited for Server Virtualization
Clustered storage architectures are characterized by many controllers working in parallel to provide data protection. In a clustered architecture, each appliance contains an x86-based controller with relatively few disk drives. Data protection and controller failover responsibilities are evenly distributed across all of the appliances, so that no one appliance is heavily loaded (see Figure 2).

More resources, such as a second x86 controller, more RAM, and more NIC ports, can be easily added to each controller appliance since the clustered approach relies on industry-standard server technology. Thus, the performance of both the underlying storage system and the shared virtual machine server environments can be ensured.

Serverless Computing Versus Conventional Server Consolidation
In traditional server consolidation, applications running at low CPU utilization are consolidated on beefy servers platforms dedicated to server-only tasks. Storage in the traditional model has generally moved external creating a massive market opportunity for easy-to-use IP SAN solutions. However, while server consolidation leads to widespread use of external shared storage, the server and storage platforms are discrete, managed separately, and based on different hardware platforms (see Figure 3).

Customer Benefits of Serverless Computing
Serverless computing allows, for the first time, the consolidation of server applications on to a common platform that runs both server apps and a clustered IP SAN. The benefits are startling.

Reduced Cost: The most obvious benefit of consolidation servers into the SAN platform is reduced acquisition and management costs derived from the eliminated physical servers. The consolidated physical servers are normally quad-core Xeon processor machines with 2GB of RAM, two NIC ports, and dual redundant power supplies in a 2U form factor, such as a Dell 2950. By consolidating the physical servers into a serverless computing platform, the external servers are not required.

Here is an example of how a recent customer using 1.2 petabytes of clustered SAN storage was able to eliminate more than 90 Dell servers by deploying serverless computing:

Attribute  Traditional     Serverless     Savings

Server Acquisition Costs    $276k    0     $276k

Server Management Costs     $92k/year   $0     $92k/year

Power/Cooling     92 KWH/yr     40KWH/yr   52KWH/yr

Server Rack Space    4 Racks  0      4 Racks

Improved Failover: The use of a combined SAN/server platform also introduces a new standard for failover protection for both server and storage workloads. On the storage front, a failed appliance is treated as a simple RAID failure so that data is preserved and volume access is unimpeded. At the same time, the virtual machine that was running on the failed appliance can be automatically restarted on any available appliance, so that the application can restart. This is possible because both LAN connections and storage connections are virtual and can be automatically reestablished once the application restarts on a resident appliance. This level of application failover is normally found only in the most expensive fault-tolerant server solutions.

Simplified Management: Applications run on one of the physical appliances, but these same applications have access to the aggregated capacity and performance of all the appliances in the clustered storage array. Since load balancing of performance and provisioning of capacity is automated, system configuration is much simpler to design and ongoing management is simplified since system administrators manage server and storage resources at an aggregate level instead of managing physical attributes of individual appliances.

The application of server technologies to storage architectures has generally led to monumental shifts in value. Server consolidation offers these types of benefits and is uniquely suited to clustered storage architectures. Serverless computing holds the promise of extending the reach of server virtualization technology to a large market that could benefit from consolidating servers. This is a market that until now could not have benefited from consolidation.

More Stories By Lee Caswell

Lee Caswell is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Pivot3. He is an experienced technology executive with more than 20 years of marketing and management experience in the storage, networking, and digital video markets. Prior to Pivot3, Caswell held positions as EVP Marketing and Business Development at VMware and was a corporate officer at Adaptec, where he was VP and General Manager of Adaptec's $350M Storage Solutions Group. He spent the first five years of his career in management programs at GE. Caswell has a BA from Carleton College where he was a Wingspread Fellow and an MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College where he was a Tuck Scholar.

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