Mainframe Storage on the Cheap

IBM gives birth to a new baby Shark

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On what other planet is $100/GB for disk a bargain? The mainframe world, of course! To great fanfare last month, IBM introduced its "Baby Shark," the Enterprise Storage Server 750, which when purchased with IBM's new zSeries 890 mainframe, starts at a mere $100,000 for 1.1TB.

Compare that to pricing for an ESS 800, and $100/GB is nothing, according to Brian Truskowski, general manager of storage software for IBM's systems group. Pricing for ESS 800 can cost three times that.

Other mainframe disk vendors concur with IBM's pricing. Hu Yoshida, vice president and CTO for Hitachi Data Systems, says $100/GB (or .$10 per MB, if you prefer), is standard for mainframe disk.

In contrast, pricing for open- systems storage costs significantly less than that. Bob Zimmerman, principal analyst with Forrester Research, for example, is seeing bids for high-end Fibre Channel storage such as EMC's CX700 or IBM's FAStT900 between $30/GB to $60/GB. SCSI-connected ATA-based RAID storage, meanwhile, can be purchased for under $3/GB: Nexsan's ATAbaby has a list price of $2,795 for 1.2TB.

Why do mainframe shops endure these prices? In a nutshell, "there really aren't many options for mainframe disk--IBM, EMC and HDS," says Art Tolsma, CEO at Luminex, which makes VirtualBlue 3990, an ESCON/FICON to Fibre Channel gateway that emulates mainframe direct-access storage device (DASD) (a.k.a. disk) formats.

Technically, the lack of choice is a result of "the way the mainframe stores information out to disk is fundamentally different than in open systems," says John Webster, founder and senior analyst with Data Mobility Group. "The same data blocks can not be read."

For most mainframe shops, the solution to the high cost of DASD problem has traditionally been to write data out to tape or optical media. But new business realities such as compliance and Web-enabled applications require access times that tape and optical storage can't provide, says Jay Seifert, product marketing manager in StorageTek's information life cycle management (ILM) solutions group. "Businesses aren't moving away from the mainframe, but in order to meet their business initiatives, they need to keep more data on disk."

At the San Antonio, TX-based insurance giant USAA, the mainframe storage group's business initiative was to move away from its IBM optical media environment, to which it had been storing data from its Mobius and ImagePlus applications. What they needed to do, explains Alex Flores, a systems engineer with the group, was to find "cheap DASD that provides similar speeds for less cost," as well as meet SEC requirements.

To that end, USAA deployed an EMC Centera content-addressed storage (CAS) array combined with a virtual tape controller that stores data to open-systems storage, the Mainframe Appliance for Storage (MAS) from Bus-Tech in Burlington, MA.

EMC has since extended its Centera API to support mainframe applications, but that feature wasn't available a year ago, when USAA embarked on this project with Bus-Tech.

Luminex, with its partners, is also starting to bring quantities of online disk storage previously unheard of in the mainframe world. "Our customers like the idea of tiered storage," says CEO Tolsma, "but in the mainframe world, there's only one tier."

According to Diamond Lauffin, senior executive vice president of Nexsan, Luminex and his company have installed 400TB of ATA storage for the mainframe systems of a large U.S. telecommunications provider.

Lauffin also says Nexsan is working with Luminex and mainframe virtual tape software vendor Diligent Technologies, Framingham, MA, to build an ATA-based VTL bundle. A 16TB (raw) VTL bundle could sell for as little as $65,000 or $4/GB, Lauffin says.

StorageTek, with its mainframe tape business, may be said to store the majority of the mainframe world's fixed content, and as such, has a stake in this debate. What's its position? "We believe there's a play for disk in the mainframe fixed content space," says StorageTek's Seifert.

Currently, the company resells Bus-Tech's "here-to-theres," to use Seifert's term. But going forward, the company plans to offer another approach to bridging the mainframe and open systems disk storage gap. The plan is to offer an appliance with its BladeStore that would create an NFS mount to the mainframe. That appliance is under development, he says.

"Think of it as 'FICON-lite,'" Seifert says. "The only difference is that you're able to use the LAN, instead of being on an island in the mainframe." And IBM? What do they think? Luminex's Tolsma says, IBM, for one, "loves us, because it enables them to sell more mainframes."

This was first published in May 2004
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