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Isilon overhauls clustered storage line with X-Series

Dave Raffo, News Director
Isilon Systems Inc. is overhauling its IQ clustered storage systems, bumping up the speeds and feeds in reaction to large storage vendors ramping up their own clustered offerings.

On Monday Isilon launched its X-Series platform, which the vendor claims increases performance for data writes and random access by 60% over its I-Series. The X-Series new motherboard includes a dual-core Intel Xeon 5130 processor that increases memory cache to 4 MB, memory speed to 667 MHz and the number of bus lanes to four. The X-Series also supports 10 Gbps Ethernet on the front end and double-data rate (DDR)

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InfiniBand on the back end. The new systems replace Isilon's I-Series, although the X-Series is backward compatible for customers to upgrade to the company's new One FS 4.7 operating system.

Like the I-Series, the X-Series scales to more than 1.6 PB and provides performance of 10 Gbps in a single file and volume with a 96-node cluster. The X-Series is certified to run VMware ESX Server 3.0 and work with Cisco Systems Inc.'s WAAS and Riverbed Technology Inc.'s Steelhead wide area file services WAFS appliances.

According to Isilon, more than 60 customers have upgraded to the new system, although two users told SearchStorage.com they haven't had it long enough to notice much of a difference.

Brad Stephens, systems engineering manager of Canadian seismic processing firm Arcis Corp., said he upgraded because he needed more capacity. Arcis now has two 24-node clusters and about 250 TB of raw data of Isilon storage. "We needed additional storage," he said. "But we're told there should be a performance benefit and we're looking to squeeze out every bit of performance we can get. High-performance storage is mandatory for what we do."

Jack Yudell, data center operations manager for Austin Radiological Association, said he doubled capacity to two 48 TB clusters in order to replicate between them. "We were looking to add capacity to our clusters," he said. "The anticipated boost in performance hopefully will be a welcome bonus."

Organizations seeking clustered storage have more options from large vendors these days. Among Isilon's competitors in file storage, Network Appliance Inc. offers OnTap GX for high-performance computing, Hewlett-Packard Co. last year acquired PolyServe Inc. for clustered storage, and Sun Microsystems Inc. is pushing ZFS for clusters. EMC Corp. plans to bring out a hardware/software-clustered system with code names Maui and Hulk this year. On the block storage side, IBM acquired Israeli startup XIV Ltd. and Dell Inc. paid $1.4 billion for iSCSI SAN vendor EqualLogic Inc. in recent months to beef up its clustered platforms.

"The big vendors are raising awareness in the market for users," said Brett Goodwin, Isilon marketing vice president.

They're also raising the competition level. Isilon had found a niche where NAS market leaders NetApp and EMC were slow to go. NetApp chief marketing officer Jay Kidd said demand for clusters is just developing in mainstream NAS environments. "For the mainstream, the urgency to get to a clustered model is not that high," he said. "Clustered file systems have been around a long time with a fairly modest uptake."

Nevertheless, NetApp is working to consolidate GX with its primary OnTap operating system, Kidd said. Integration has been slow, considering that NetApp acquired clustering technology when it bought startup Spinnaker Networks in 2003.

Besides the competition, Isilon must recover from what one analyst calls it's "post-IPO hangover." Isilon went public in late 2006 by hailing itself as the clustered storage leader, but its 2007 results were disappointing, and its stock price tanked. As a result, last October it switched CEOs from Steve Goldman to founder Sujal Patel.

But the pain isn't over yet -- an independent audit committee is reviewing the timing and treatment of revenue recognition, and whether the company's internal controls for revenue recognition are sufficient. The review has prevented Isilon from announcing its financial results for the last two quarters, and it faces delisting from Nasdaq for lack of compliance.

Yet from a technology standpoint, Isilon appears ahead of its rivals because it's been playing the clustered storage game longer. Despite its financial missteps, Isilon claims that it gained more than 300 customers last year, doubling its previous total.

"Irrespective of Isilon's ill-executed post-IPO hangover, they've sold tons of the stuff," said Steve Duplessie , Enterprise Strategy Group founder and senior analyst . "They're winning right now, but you'll see others doing it. The reason NetApp bought Spinnaker was to do this. Everybody has a skunkworks project set up to do this."

Duplessie said it will also take upgrades, like Isilon's new system, to stay in front in the cluster game. "It's never fast enough, it never scales enough," he said of storage. "You always need more, you never need less. You always play that 'mine's bigger' game."

Goodwin said that Isilon's focus on clustered storage will help it win. "We feel like we've got a solid two to three year technology lead," he said. "And we're not standing still. We're a 100% pure play on clustered storage."

Right now, Isilon's a 100% pure play on file-based clustered storage, but Goodwin hinted that could change. "Adding iSCSI capability for block storage would not be difficult," he said. "But we're not announcing that today."

Pricing ranges from $2,500 per terabyte for a nearline archive 12000 model to $12,000 per terabyte for a high-performance 1920 system.


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