When it comes to data storage, there is no such thing as enough.

Just ask Marshall Gibbs, director of IT for Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) (pictured at left). He manages the data warehouse and mining operation at IRI, a provider of consumer intelligence to companies in the pharmaceuticals and consumer packaging sectors. With 122TB of active data residing on the company's SAN, Gibbs is challenged to deliver more data, more quickly and reliably, than ever before. The stakes are high for both IRI and its customers."These are multi- multi-million dollar business decisions they are making based on insights we provide," Gibbs explains. "It's very mission critical information to them. And they will tell you and Wall Street will tell you, if the data goes dark for a little while with one of these retailers, their stock tanks."

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But the problem hasn't been deploying enough storage to handle fast-growing databases. It's been getting that data and analytics to customers quickly enough to deliver a competitive advantage.

"The Symmetrix [8530 units] have been extremely solid for us in terms of overall performance, but the fact is we couldn't get enough data off them fast enough," says Gibbs, adding "we've been forced to spread storage across multiple chassis to get enough throughput."

Instead of waiting for a successor to the fifth-generation Symmetrix, many storage managers have bought from Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) and IBM, causing Symmetrix users to ask whether the vaunted "Symm" was still the Rolls Royce of storage. Would they get better performance from the HDS Lightning 9900 V, with its cross-bar architecture? Should they bring in the IBM Enterprise Storage System for its better pricing?

A first look at the new Symmetrix suggests that EMC has dramatically improved performance and value. The buzz over the last year has been that "Symm 6" would be nothing new, but it is, in fact, a radical departure from any existing storage subsystem architectures.

King of the hill
This month, EMC moved to stop the bleeding, unveiling its sixth-generation Symmetrix under the moniker Symmetrix DMX. The new array has an interconnect architecture--called a direct matrix--that uses up to 128 point-to-point connections between cache memory and the front-end and back-end controllers, an approach that not only eliminates the bottlenecks of the previous Symm's bus architecture, but seems to outpace advanced switch-based solutions.

"From a hardware perspective, this is a major architectural change," says Robert Passmore, research director at research firm Gartner. "This is a major leapfrog over the competition in terms of scalability and performance, and it is much needed."

The specs tell part of the story. Symmetrix DMX is rated for 70.4GB/s of peak internal bandwidth, a huge leap over the Symmetrix 8000's 1.6GB/s rating. It also boosts cache throughput to 16GB/s from 6.4GB/s, and back-end I/O to 12.8GB/s from 5.1GB/s. Factor in higher drive parallelism through the use of up to 64 drive loops over 2Gb Fibre Channel connections, and EMC claims that Symmetrix DMX has data transfer rates that are five or six times higher than that of the 8000 family.

Symmetrix DMX model offerings
  DMX800 DMX1000 DMX1000-P DMX2000 DMX2000-P
Packaging Modular Integrated Integrated Integrated Integrated
Drives 120 144 144 288 288
Capacity (raw) 17.5TB 21TB 21TB 42TB 42TB
Capacity (usable) 15.3TB (parity) 18.4TB (parity) 10.5TB (mirrored) 36.8TB (parity) 21TB (mirrored)
Drive channels 16 x 2Gb FC 16 x 2Gb FC 32 x 2Gb FC 32 x 2Gb FC 64 x 2Gb FC
Cache Directors 2 2-4 2-4 4-8 4-8
Max cache 32GB 64GB 64GB 128GB 128GB
Ports 16 x 2Gb FC 48 x 2Gb FC
48 x ESCON
24 x 2Gb FICON*
32 x 2Gb FC
32 x ESCON
16 x 2Gb FICON*
48 x 2Gb FC
96 x ESCON
48 x 2Gb FICON*
64 x 2Gb FC
64 x ESCON
32 x 2Gb FICON*
*Not available until Q3 2003 at the earliest.

For now, the Symmetrix DMX is king of the performance hill. It vaults over the published specifications of the HDS Lightning 9900 V family, with four times the rated internal bandwidth of the high-end HDS Lightning 9980 V (15.9GB/s). The Symmetrix DMX supports up to 128GB of global memory and 32 concurrent cache regions, vs. the 9980 V's 64GB and four concurrent cache regions. On paper, these specs give Symmetrix DMX a big edge in environments where responsiveness is limited by bandwidth.

The specs also give EMC a leg up in the high-end storage array market.

"For the last couple of years, Hitachi has done an excellent job marketing themselves as a superb technology against an aging Symmetrix architecture," says Tony Prigmore, senior analyst for industry research firm Enterprise Storage Group. "This announcement shifts that."

This was first published in January 2003

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