Xiotech, Atrato spin out self-healing disk systems

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Storage systems launched two weeks apart this spring have people in the industry wondering if they represent the future or are merely fads.

Systems from Atrato and Xiotech aren't identical, but they're far more similar to each other than to traditional storage systems. They use sealed components holding disk drives, promise to run for years without needing service and can be clustered for I/O-intensive applications. And they each refer to their disk arrays as "self-healing."

Startup Atrato came out of stealth mode with its Velocity1000 on March 25. Xiotech, which shipped its first system 10 years ago, looked to jumpstart its fortunes by making a splash at Storage Networking World with the announcement of its Emprise platform on April 8.

Disk drive maker Seagate's DNA is in both companies and their new products. Seagate owned Xiotech from 1999 to 2002, and the Emprise platform comes from Seagate's Advanced Storage Architecture (ASA) that Xiotech acquired last November. And Atrato will add Seagate's DriveTrust full disk encryption to its disk arrays.

Xiotech and Atrato are also bringing new acronyms to the storage world. Xiotech calls the sealed DataPacs for its SAN systems ISEs (Intelligent Storage Elements), and refers to its software grid as RAGS (Redundancy Allocation Grid System).

Atrato calls its disk technology SAID (self-maintaining array of identical disks). Confidence in its disk reliability has prompted Xiotech to give a five-year warranty, while Atrato promises its systems won't fail for three years.

Both vendors say they avoid RAID rebuilds by copying data off a problematic drive, diagnosing whether the drive has truly failed, refurbishing bad sectors if they can, and copying the data back to the repaired disk or a new one. They use error-correction codes to find potential drive failures and store data on good sectors of problematic drives.

Benjamin Woo, VP, enterprise storage systems at Framingham, MA-based IDC, says Atrato and Xiotech will likely become known more for their drive-centric approach than for their acronyms.

"Where they're most similar is the sealed disk, that's the beginning of something new," says Woo. "People are looking for more return on their system. The question is should it be three to five years or seven to 10 years? I'm not sure it's always going to be a sealed pack, but people want a physically protected disk that's more highly available."

As with any product, nobody knows what to expect until the Velocity and Emprise systems have been in production for a while. At launch time, neither Atrato nor Xiotech had any reference customers using their new systems in production. But Xiotech claims 14 early adopters, mostly customers of its Magnitude 3D who tested the Emprise.

One of them, Newsweek CTO Len Carella, gave the Emprise 7000 an early thumbs-up. Carella says his staff tested Xiotech's maintenance-free claims by banging the Emprise into walls, pulling cables and shutting power supplies, but couldn't crash it. As for performance, he says, "the Emprise is at least 50% faster than the [Magnitude] 3D" in tests. He's strongly considering buying one when Newsweek moves to a smaller data center in December. "Booting from the SAN to a diskless workstation is a reality with this system," says Carella.

Not surprisingly, established storage vendors disagree with the claims Atrato and Xiotech make of being first or best in any area. IBM and EMC have their own next-gen systems to tout. IBM acquired Israeli startup XIV in January, and is expected to bring out XIV's block-based clustered Nextra systems under the IBM brand this year, possibly as a midrange replacement for the DS6800.

EMC is preparing its own clustered system and targeting it toward Web 2.0 companies. The hardware and software for the system is known by the code names Hulk and Maui, respectively.

But the systems from IBM and EMC won't sway as far from traditional storage architecture as do those from Xiotech and Atrato. Nextra was designed by XIV founder Moshe Yanai, who designed the EMC Symmetrix high-end warhorse.

IDC's Woo describes Nextra as "classic Moshe design. Throw enough cache and CPU at it and everything will be perfect," he says. "It's sort of a Symmetrix built on commodity parts. Moshe's systems are all focused around cache algorithms that deliver high performance."

EMC's clustered systems are harder to assess because the company hasn't given many details about the software yet. Industry buzz is that the first iteration will run software from EMC partner Ibrix until EMC gets its own clustered system running.

"Maui will be very software and compute intensive," says Woo. "The underlying disk is somewhat irrelevant. The value will be around industry-standard servers running intelligent software."

--Dave Raffo

This was first published in June 2008

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