In this article we will attempt to summarize the tremendous surge of shared storage infrastructure products announced at the NAB show this year.
The Magic Box
We should start with what we feel was the most dramatic announcement of the show in terms of storage infrastructure: Promise’s SANLink Thunderbolt to dual-port, 4 Gigabit Fiber Channel adaptor.
Most chatter about this new device revolves around the possibility of adding laptops to Xsan/StorNext systems. While the prospect of adding laptops to these systems via a small device that can easily be unplugged at exactly the wrong time fills us with dread, that is entirely not the point of the box.
We strongly feel that the box was ordered directly from Apple to fill the void that will eventually come when Apple discontinues the Mac Pro as we know it, something that we have been predicting for some time now. The new Mac Pro will probably look something akin to the current Mac Mini, except slightly taller, more powerful, and with Thunderbolt ports. In fact, all of us need to grapple with the prospect of a Mac product line without any capability of expansion beyond USB, Firewire and Thunderbolt.
With this in mind, we were delighted to see a near-production model and an early summer ship date for the SANLink (although those giant built-in heat sinks gave us pause about its thermal design – the unit was quite hot to the touch when in operation). Pricing will probably be around $1,000. This means that at any time now, Apple can pull the plug on the current Mac Pro and not shock an entire industry. Add to that the near-production offerings of Thunderbolt-driven capture devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox and MOTU, and we have our new-age video workstation clearly in sight.
Promse’s VTrak x30 System
Promise also followed this up with the announcement of the VTrak x30 line of RAID chassis boxes. These boxes feature an all-new front and back design, with dual 8Gb Fiber Channel controllers, each with four ports. This massive allocation of ports, for a theoretical offering of 64Gb/s of bandwidth availability, will allow integrators to substantially increase the density, and reduce the rack space, of a Fiber Channel based shared storage system. Promise is qualifying, out of the gate, three expansion boxes hanging off one of their controller boxes for video workflows. With this configuration, and using 2TB drives, we have 128 to 144TB of raw storage capacity in a single storage “unit”, taking up only between 12 to 13 rack spaces. The variance in capacity and rack space has to do with the controller box, which now can be purchased in either 24-drive, 4U or the traditional 16-drive, 3U configurations. Expansion boxes remain 16-drive, 3U, only.
The VTrak x30 system is orderable on Apple’s online store today, with units shipping in 3-4 weeks.
Connecting the dots here, we clearly see an ongoing, intimate relationship between Apple and Promise, through two paradigms. First, Promise clearly had unique early access to the Thunderbolt spec in order to design their Fiber Channel adaptor (and Pegasus RAIDs, which we’ll cover in another article). Second, their 8Gb storage offerings, being available so soon on the Apple store and so far ahead of most competition tells us that the go ahead for these products is clearly coming from on-high at Apple.
But please don’t interpret all this Promise-heavy analysis as a blind blessing of their product lines. Any integrator or admin who has worked with this company over the long term knows that the experience is far from consistent, in terms of technical support and/or product reliability. We will say that, once their current 4Gb boxes have offered up their fresh-from-factory faulty drives and controllers within the first few weeks or months, the boxes to tend to settle into trouble-seldom operation after that. We can only hope that their new VTrak x30 product line will benefit from the maturity of their current firmware development, and not badger the industry with the intolerable issues that plagued the original VTrak line when they first arrived as Apple’s darling in the summer of 2008.
Connectivity to Workstations
So how will our workstations connect to the clearly defined 8Gb Fiber Channel network? No word from Apple about OEM 8Gb PCIe Fiber Channel HBAs. Is it any wonder why? Again, it’s because soon, there will be no place to put such an HBA in a Mac. You may also wonder why Promise’s Thunderbolt to Fiber Channel adaptor is not 8Gb. That is because the current 10Gb limit of Thunderbolt would under power a dual-channel 8Gb adapter, but is perfectly suited for 4Gb. For most video-centric workflows, dual 4Gb will be more than enough bandwidth for a single workstation, and 8Gb storage being presented on 8Gb Fiber Channel switching will ensure plenty of bandwidth to go around for all.
Even as the prospect of 4K workflow looms over our industry, what with JVC showing a preview of a 4K handheld camcorder at the show, AJA suddenly switching on 4K capability on their Kona 3G card, and a certain new editing program that offers the possibility of working at this size, we feel that workstation-side connectivity to the 8Gb Fiber Channel storage and switching infrastructures does not have to be at 8Gb. Yes, certain workstations doing digital intermediate work, such as color grading and compositing, will benefit from this connectivity speed, but these systems are more often featured running on Windows or Linux-based ubiquitous PC boxes, which will sport PCIe slots for some time. And for these boxes, 8Gb HBAs from ATTO and Qlogic will do just fine.
Active Storage had no 8Gb storage to offer, yet, but the spotlight at their booth was on their ActiveSAN metadata controller appliance. The box was straightforward enough, and the configuration GUI was baby-bottom smooth and simple. What raised some eyebrows was the pricing model and the “options” on the box going forward.
Let’s start with the options first. Everyone was intrigued last year with Active’s InnerPOOL metadata appliance for Xsan, which when the Xserve was discontinued, evaporated as a product soon after. Active is hinting at an InnerPOOL-like option for the ActiveSAN, which will allow for embedding the metadata information within two of the four drive bays in the box, and then further circuitry to replicate that data to the second box. All good, we say, but we’d rather have that feature in the 1.0 of this box rather than an option later on. And with no preview prototype at the show, we can only wonder when a release date will be proposed for this option.
The pricing for a pair of ActiveSAN boxes ranges from $24-$34K, with the variance revolving around how many clients you intend to add to the system, and whether those clients will be a mix of StorNext and Xsan, or whether you can stay on one side of the fence, so to speak. At first glance, this pricing would shock some, but on further analysis, it actually provides quite a good deal. We have to remember that this is not Xsan anymore; this is Quantum’s StorNext, and with that, Quantum’s pricing. Within the pricing comes pre-configuration of the StorNext licensing (often a nightmare) a Quantum Gold Level support contract to boot, and Active’s assurance that they cover the entire caboodle for 3 years, including overnight parts replacement. If you look inside at the hardware components: dual power, ATTO 8Gb HBA, LOM circuitry, soft-RAID-1 boot drives, it quickly become a comprehensive package. You just have to remember that Xsan and/or StorNext FX licensing for the clients is an additional cost to the package.
Isilon: the Fancy NAS that just won’t quit
New to the Isilon line up this year was a streamlined series of boxes for super-fast, so-so fast and nearline storage, all with true 10GigE connectivity (but still just Ethernet presented via SMB or NFS, with all the issues associated with those protocols when used for streaming data), and larger disk capacities. Isilon holds a special niche for those facilities with deep pockets for the boxes, but no tolerance for multiple networks. That market is rapidly expanding, as facilities “get away” with using these systems as production storage in video environments. Dare we forget that Apple’s recent 12PB purchase will be used to fuel their initial cloud ventures? Discovery has these boxes all over their IT map. We’re sure this is only the beginning. Big boy content makers/distributors are bolstered by the recent purchase by EMC and the lovely feature that allows a facility to keep adding boxes, which brings 60-second redundancy and near-limitless expansion capability with no downtime whatsoever.
EMC clearly saw in Isilon an alternative to their astronomically high priced and underpowered fiber channel storage walls, and we thought the acquisition would bring about a lowering of Isilon’s price points, down to the level where the system would start to make true sense. But that has not materialized yet. For example, a minimum 3-box config of their 10GigE product starts at nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Still, for those who can afford it, and can deal with the limitations of Ethernet packet communication, Isilon really has no competition in the marketplace.
The alternative small-scale collaborative storage vendors continued to parade their solutions. Facilis Technology's TerraBlock (a proprietary block level Fiber Channel/Ethernet hybrid solution) and EditShare (exclusively Ethernet-based solution with ingest, MAM and archive components as add-on options) both offered new products with more storage, but generally nothing earth shattering.
Marrying Up: Tiger Technology and Sonnet Technologies
Of particular note, however, was the collaboration between Tiger Technology, makers of metaSAN, and Sonnet Technologies. Their new joint-offering "Sonnet Fusion Fiber-for-4" is a box of storage, storage controller, some HBAs and metaSAN, all rolled into a singular package, with starting configurations for 4 or 8 Fiber Channel clients, with further connectivity for Ethernet clients doing low-bandwidth/proxy workflow. We were intrigued with this solution primarily due to the PR bump that Tiger received working with such a highly visible storage and peripheral manufacturer as Sonnet. A “marrying up” arrangement, if you will. If successful, this relatively low cost solution can provide the small shop with a rack-and-play solution that has real legs. To be clear, we’d still not want to touch metaSAN with a ten-foot pole, but for some integrators or admins who want to set it up by themselves, this provides a brand new possibility.
The Future: FCoE on 10GigE
As we’ve mentioned before, we still see truly versatile future storage infrastructure revolving around Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) running on 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GigE) networks. And at the show, we began to see the pieces of that puzzle coming together.
The first stop was ATTO’s booth, which showed us SFP-based PCIe 10GigE HBAs, with Mac OS drivers promised for this summer, and (most importantly) FCoE initiators (which will come in the form of kernel extensions) pledged for this fall. Further, they were demonstrating connectivity to legacy Fiber Channel devices through Cisco’s adorable Nexus 5020 switch, which provides FCoE capable 10GigE connectivity on the left side, and modules for traditional 4/8Gb Fiber Channel on the right. These modules have a name, Converged Network Adaptors (CNA). These CNAs will become extremely important as we build out new facilities and migrate current facilities to single-cable 10GigE infrastructure, as they will allow us to squeeze further ROI out of our Fiber Channel storage as we wait for true FCoE on 10GigE storage controllers to emerge.
And speaking of that emergence, every single storage manufacturer we talked to discussed privately their clear intention to support FCoE on 10GigE. Timing, of course, was beautifully vague, and we still see it 18 months out at best. The issue with storage is that a more intelligent, almost computer-like controller will be needed at the “front” of the storage in order to present it through this protocol.
Because a native FCoE on 10GigE storage box is a new pivot point for competition, we are also seeing new storage manufacturers on the horizon that will play a vital role in (hopefully) bringing price points down and commoditizing this spec.
Huawei Symantec: a David in the midst of Goliaths
We spent a good amount of time, for example, at the booth of Huawei Symantec, a brand new joint venture between a notable storage manufacturer out East (as in China) and good ol' Symantec. While they don’t have a US distributor yet (that was the main purpose of their debut at the show), they have plenty of products. Among them, they offer Oceanspace, a singular storage controller reaching out to JBODs (similar to the NetApp, DataDirect Networks and EMC models), with complete modular versatility in the rear of that storage controller as to how the storage is presented: Fiber Channel, 1Gig and 10Gig Ethernet, iSCSI and yes, coming soon, FCoE over 10GigE. They stand to place the high end storage market on its head by going directly after the EMC/NetApp crowd while offering price points similar to that of Promise and Active. This, to us, was the most satisfying stealth prospect of the entire show.
To summarize this space: we’ve had the switching for a while, storage is 18 months out, and PCIe HBAs have just arrived with drivers available soon. What we don’t have are two things: a Thunderbolt to 10GigE dongle (or woggle, as my colleague Tim Burton has corrected me they should be called), and the slow commoditization and price lowering that will come when enough competitors are on the scene. What we feel for certain is that these are the storage infrastructures of the future and the ones that Meta Media will be leading the way into implementation for our current and future customers.
In our next article, the empowerment of the individual creative, strongly evident at this year’s show.