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A toaster oven in the data center

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A toaster oven in the data center

Vendors may claim midrange arrays rival enterprise systems feature for feature, but user skepticism threatens to take some of the air out of the hot midrange market.

MY TOASTER OVEN will cook a turkey--at least that's what the manufacturer claims. It even came with detailed directions describing how to roast the big bird. According to the specs on the box, the only difference between this little countertop marvel and the conventional oven sitting next to it, apart from physical size and price, is that the big guy requires a special three-phase power outlet. In the storage environment, an analogous situation exists between midrange and enterprise storage arrays, right down to the special electrical outlets.

Why does anyone buy a conventional oven or an enterprise storage array? It turns out that folks in general are pretty smart when it comes to the old adage of "you get what you pay for," and they're rapidly becoming disenchanted with midrange storage despite the more modest price tags. Vendors have been adding barely functional features to these systems while their sales forces aggressively push these little wonders. But skepticism abounds in the user community, and virtualization might just stick a fork in today's hot midrange storage market.

The right tool
Midrange modular storage devices have had a profound impact on the enterprise

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in the last few years. EMC's 1999 purchase of Data General showed that an alternative to monolithic storage was recognized at all levels, and less-expensive modular storage systems soon began to appear in corporate data centers. The appealing concept of tiered storage showed the illogic of placing all of a corporation's information on expensive, high-end systems; it was then easy to make a case to introduce a reliable, high-performance, low-featured storage system as an alternative to the high-end hardware.

But vendors weren't content to simply sell bulk storage. Instead, they quickly began to add high-end features like array-to-array replication, internal mirroring and snapshots to these low-end systems. Buyers could be forgiven for thinking there was little difference between midrange and high-end systems apart from cost. I've even heard salespeople claiming that their company's high-end and midrange storage lines are essentially similar.

But experience has shown that relying on midrange systems for high-end applications is akin to relying on a toaster oven to prepare your Thanksgiving dinner. It might work, but most of the time it doesn't. It always pays to use the right tool for the job, and these systems are far more limited than they may appear to be at first glance. Many midrange arrays have absolute restrictions on the number of logical unit numbers that can be mirrored or replicated, and most are incapable of load balancing I/O across the two controllers they're uniformly equipped with.

Users have also reported reliability issues with midrange systems, especially with regard to widely used low-cost ATA disk trays. And post-sales support for these midrange products may sometimes be handled by third parties, a situation that may not always be understood beforehand. Difficulty with management and reporting software, and a general lack of familiarity are other common complaints. One company I spoke with still hasn't figured out how to automatically import utilization statistics from its midrange system to its standard corporate reports.

This was first published in February 2006

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