Xiotech and Atrato forge self-healing storage market

New disk array designs use sealed components, resulting in storage systems that may not need servicing for five years or more.

Xiotech has been around for decades, while Atrato has just recently come out of stealth. But both companies have rolled out new storage systems in the last month that make the same promise - years of service without a service event.

The similarities between these systems are inescapable. Both vendors claim their systems will not need service through a multiyear period, and both use sealed components containing multiple disk drives.

Xiotech and Atrato claim patents pending on how those enclosures are sealed, and both said adding more dampening materials and front-to-back cooling methods across the surface of the drives will minimise the most common causes of drive failure - shock and vibration, and heat.

Both vendors are rethinking the market, rather than sticking drives into boxes like we've been doing for the last 20 years
Robin Harris
analystData Mobility Group
Both vendors avoid RAID rebuilds by copying data off a problematic drive, diagnosing whether the drive has really failed or not, refurbishing bad sectors if possible and copying the data back, either to a new drive or to the repaired drive.

Both vendors use various error correction codes to identify potential drive failures, and both said they can work around a bad drive head by storing data on the remaining good sectors of the drive.

Both systems have roots that trace back to disk drive manufacturer Seagate. Atrato CEO Dan McCormick previously worked for Xiotech and Seagate, and Xiotech bought the intellectual property for its system from Seagate's Advanced Storage Architecture (ASA) group.

"These two systems do have a lot in common," said Robin Harris, a Data Mobility Group analyst. "The ideas have come from roughly the same place. Both vendors are also clearly showing a rethinking of the market, technology and how technologies interact, rather than sticking disk drives into boxes like we've been doing for the last 20 years now."

Secret sauce for self-healing storage

Where the systems differ is in the way each vendor has packaged its self-healing secret. Xiotech's product is positioned as general-purpose storage, while Atrato is aiming at the high-performance computing (HPC) and content-delivery environments.

Because of this, Xiotech is selling its Intelligent Storage Enclosures (ISEs) in much smaller increments. Users can buy an Emprise 5000 unit with as little as 1.5 TB capacity and use it as DAS with a direct upgrade path to the Emprise 7000 SAN system.

Each ISE "building block" unit contains 20 to 40 drives, an internal controller, fans and power supply. The arrays can be purchased in one of three flavours of Fibre Channel drives: high performance, with a capacity of 2.2 TB; balanced, with a capacity of 4.8 TB; and high capacity, with up to 16 TB in 3U. ISE can support 3.5-inch 15,000 rpm disks, 3.5-inch 7,200 rpm disks and 2.5-inch 15,000 rpm disks. The Emprise 7000 SAN can support Fibre Channel or iSCSI host connectivity and can hold any number of ISE blocks.

Atrato's basic unit is much bigger. The 3U, 160-drive enclosure contains 2.5-inch enterprise SATA disks connected to four floor boards. The controller is external, and customers can pick from a 2U controller by IBM or a more powerful 3U controller from SGI. While Xiotech said it will be able to support virtually any storage media that comes along, including solid-state drives, McCormick said that Atrato is sticking to one drive type for now.

This is because Atrato is positioning its product for specific vertical markets with high capacity and uniform workloads. "We've chosen to have a separate controller with a roadmap that we think allows for more flexibility, and ultimately better scaling for markets we're going after, than a general-purpose storage product like Xiotech," McCormick said. He added that the power savings on small form factor SATA drives are more compelling in Web 2.0 data centres "where people are racking whole football fields full of them."

Both Xiotech's and Atrato's strategies make sense to Harris. "Both companies have made reasonable decisions," he said. "For the smaller company, it would make more sense for them to attack a smaller niche, whereas Xiotech is in a position to attack a larger market."

In the few days since Xiotech launched its self-healing storage systems, that larger market has made itself clear. Xiotech reports 14 early adopters, while Atrato reports one large government customer. Several of Xiotech's US-based early adopters have also been willing to comment publicly.

Dean Arndt, senior networking manager with Pro Health Care in Chicago, said he wouldn't have gone out on a limb with such a new technology if he didn't have a longstanding relationship with the vendor. Pro Health has been a Xiotech customer since 1999. "The ability to use the ICON manager like I do with my [Magnitude] 3D 4000 system is a big plus," he said. Arndt said he doesn't quite believe that any system can last a full five years, but "in the medical profession, anything that can assure greater stability in the SAN has benefits."

Other early adopters are more gung-ho. Rich Kopcho, CEO of Colorado-based service provider Holonyx, said the Emprise 7000 will be the basis of a new SaaS product launch planned in June that will allow users to try different Linux distributions via a Web browser. "We're expecting 100,000 users in the first month with as many as 5,000 concurrent users at a time," he said. "No other storage system would be able to give us the performance rates we need."

Arndt said he had been impressed with the performance in a test of a 100 GB mirror. "In the past, setting up a mirror that size would take about a minute per gigabyte on a 10 GB volume," he said. "The Emprise system did all 100 GB in one minute." Still, Atrato has a leg up on Xiotech, as its product is already shipping. Xiotech is taking orders for its product, but it won't ship till June.

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