X-IO and why clever drive technologies could be a good bet

If I were a betting man when it came to the prospects of storage businesses I might be tempted to put some money on the mid-long term prospects of X-IO.

X-IO – which revealed an addition to its hybrid flash array line this week at SNW Europe – makes storage arrays, some pure HDD, some hybrid flash SSD-HDD, that target performance applications such as VDI, OLTP and business intelligence/data warehousing.

It doesn’t offer the highest performance available, such as you might get from an all-flash array and the company poo-poohs the idea that you need expensive integrated database-specific compute/storage products to run what others might call ‘big data’ use cases. Instead it touts its ISE and Hyper ISE arrays with commodity servers and Microsoft SQL 2012 databases as adequate for most.

Nothing that unusual so far; it’s a vendor selling wares that perform adequately for the job they aim at. Where X-IO is different, however, is that its arrays don’t contain commodity hard drives, unlike just about every other storage array vendor.

Instead, X-IO products come with IP inherited from purchase of Seagate ASA in 2007, namely five-year guaranteed sealed unit 20 drive DataPacs that are engineered to be more reliable and longer-lasting than standard hard drives. X-IO says its drives last 2.4x longer than a Seagate HDD with an MTBF of 850,000 for an individual drive in a DataPac.

They achieve this by building in anti-vibration mountings, features such as diverting cooling intake on physical startup to stop ingress of gathered dust to the array, and details such as retained mounting screws; no lost screw, no chance of unwanted movement, is the aim here.

At the drive software/controller level firmware is stripped from standard Seagate drives and X-IO’s installed, while data is written grid-pattern across drives in DataPacs. A fault-repair system goes through a triage process, starting with a reboot that fixes most drive issues. If this doesn’t work the drive can be reformatted in situ and if a problem is found, a single surface and its head can be locked out of use while the rest of the drive is reinstated.

Why is this a good betting prospect? The next few years will likely see much of the intelligence of storage, the job of the controller in assembling and provisioning volumes of storage and handling features such as replication, thin provisioning etc, move to the virtual server stack. VMware, for example, recently signaled its intent to bring storage virtualisation capabilities to future versions of its hypervisor.

Should such moves come to pass, storage array vendors selling arrays up to Petabyte capacities could find the rug pulled from under them as the likes of VMware assemble and manage storage capacity from the virtual server.

You could, of course, build storage this way from all sorts of drives; in old arrays, as direct-attached storage, from JBODs full of commodity drives. But not everyone will be happy with that for reasons of reliability. And that leaves the way open for providers, like X-IO, of drive subsystems that specialise in the intelligence that is close to the drives and that provides reliability and resilience.

Maybe everything in storage will one day be controlled from the virtual server, but it feels like a fairly safe bet that the hypervisor vendors will not get into that level of drive management for the time being.