Where ATA arrays can save you money


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ATA in the data center?
Although ATA-based RAID has gained ground in niche markets and as an alternative data backup solution, the question remains: Will ATA present a serious challenge SCSI in the data center?

Gerr says he believes many enterprise users are prepared to take their cues from the major vendors with whom they have long-term relationships. "It takes more market leaders in the industry to adopt ATA as an important part of their technology roadmaps to help users feel more comfortable about ATA as a viable alternative. It's a matter of psychology, of marketing, of testing and experience," he says.

According to Vaughn, however, resistance to ATA in mainstream enterprise RAID applications runs deep. "Enterprise customers are absolutely willing to consider ATA in distributed environments, but not in the data center," he says. "If you talk to the data center guys, they aren't willing to risk their careers just to save money by using ATA instead of SCSI."

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Major vendors introduce ATA RAID products
In recent months, IBM, Network Appliance, and EMC have all introduced ATA-based RAID products. These companies' ATA products aren't designed for mainstream enterprise use - rather, they're intended for niche applications or for midmarket customers that traditionally couldn't afford enterprise-class RAID products. Nevertheless, these products represent an interesting development in the high-end storage market, and they could pave the way for additional ATA-based RAID solutions.

Network Appliance and EMC have introduced ATA-based RAID products designed primarily for nearline storage applications. The NetApp NearStore 100, with 12TB of ATA-based RAID storage per appliance, consolidates data from multiple filers, creating an accessible backup source for recent data and providing a platform for transferring backup data to offline storage. EMC, by comparison, positions its ATA-based Centera system as a nearline archive for static content: data such as medical imaging, rich media content and other material that users require occasional access to without the inconvenience of accessing offline storage systems. EMC doesn't describe Centera as a RAID product, although its functionality is quite similar.

IBM, on the other hand, has moved closer to providing a true ATA-based RAID solution with its TotalStorage NAS 100 system. The NAS 100, which includes four 120GB ATA drives per unit and provides RAID 0, 1 and 5 support, is designed primarily for customers with multiple branch or remote locations, or as an entry-level RAID solution for small- or medium-sized business customers. In either case, IBM expects the NAS 100 to provide a cost-effective solution, allowing customers to adopt RAID technology in situations where they might otherwise use nonredundant storage.

In fact, some IT managers are wary of ATA technology precisely because its cost appears too good to be true. According to Matthew Stock, director of information technology for the computer science and engineering department at State University of New York at Buffalo, his organization is not yet willing to move ATA-based RAID systems into high-performance environments in spite of its lower cost. "We've worked with the ATA systems, and it's a really good value for the dollar if you need a lot of storage and aren't too concerned about performance," he says. "But part of me thinks, if I'm getting 2TB of ATA storage for what it would cost for 300GB in a NetApp or EMC system, I've got to be losing something, whether it's the value-added software, or the performance, or the reliability."

In other cases, however, IT executives have decided the marginal performance benefits of SCSI simply aren't worth the price. Auctionwatch.com, San Bruno, CA, a major provider of online sales management applications and services, has almost completed a company-wide migration from SCSI to ATA-based storage arrays. According to CTO Greg McNutt, although the move was initially cost-driven, the company gets virtually the same level of performance and reliability it had with SCSI storage - including on critical database and application servers. "On our systems, the performance has been nearly equivalent," McNutt says. "Even on our databases, where we initially had some concern about performance issues, right now the evidence is that the ATA drives aren't any better or worse [than SCSI]."

Mike Wentz, director of product marketing for 3ware, in Mountain View, CA, says he believes resistance to ATA will continue to wane as managers gain more exposure and learn to accept the technology. "The price point of ATA is so attractive that companies can use it for data that didn't have the benefit of RAID protection in the past," he says. "This gets ATA into the data center through a bottom-up approach ... as CIOs and IT managers get comfortable with ATA technology on the low end, it will begin to migrate up the hierarchy.

Roger Cox, a chief analyst in Gartner Dataquest's Storage Research organization, observed that other storage technologies traveled a similar path into the data center. "You have to fight customer perceptions. They'll say, 'ATA technology is junk. I don't want that, I want SCSI and Fibre Channel.' But we're going through the same experience with ATA drives that we went through 15 years ago, when EMC and other companies introduced drives based on small form factors at a time when they weren't considered adequate for enterprise use," he says. (See "Serial ATA and iSCSI.")

Accepting the inevitable
Do top-tier storage vendors have an interest in slowing the spread of ATA-based RAID products? The thought has occurred to some competitors who point out the unusually high margins associated with SCSI storage hardware, which in many cases costs two to three times more per GB of storage than ATA disks.

"I think they're being dragged kicking and screaming into the ATA market," Ripley says of the major vendors. "You see a huge price gap between their ATA and SCSI products. They're trying to come up with creative marketing reasons why one is different from the other, but it's all pretty transparent. To be fair, it's a huge problem: They're used to selling at very high margins, and the ATA business is based on low margins and low profits."

According to Studham, some vendors were reluctant to work with his organization on ATA-based RAID solutions. "I think it's just a marketing decision on their part," he says. "If you have a market selling high-performance SANs for $50,000 per TB you'd be shooting yourself in the foot to come out with a product that had the same performance characteristics at $5,000 per TB."

Cox agrees that some vendors view ATA-based RAID as a threat rather than as a new business opportunity. "To me, a lot of this isn't about technology. It's about protecting revenue and protecting business," he says. "Companies like IBM, Dell, and HP are reluctant to sell ATA because they don't make as much money on it, but eventually the competition will force them to change."

According to Bennett, however, Network Appliance has already embraced ATA as a rapidly growing part of the enterprise storage market. "These lesser technologies generally start with poor performance and low reliability, but their main benefit is that they're cheap and just good enough to work in niche markets. But as they get better over time, they get traction and move up-market," he says. "It's a classic example of disruptive innovation - the incumbents fight it to protect their installed base, and the upstarts embrace the technology and drive it forward. But you either deal with reality or you get run over, and our plans are to embrace this stuff actively."

This was first published in October 2002

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