Nimble Storage prepares combo iSCSI SAN-data reduction backup system

Nimble Storage puts iSCSI storage for primary data and snapshot data protection for backup and disaster recovery in one system that uses SSDs and SATA disk for storage tiers.

Nimble Storage Inc., founded by former Data Domain engineers, came out of stealth today with storage systems that combine iSCSI and capacity optimized primary and secondary data for backup and disaster recovery in one box.

The Nimble CS-Series is available in two 3U configurations. The CS220 has 12 TB of raw data, while the CS240 has 24 TB of raw data. They include Intel multi-level cell (MLC) Flash solid-state drives (SSDs) for performance and SATA disk for backup data. The systems use snapshots with duplicate blocks removed to store up to 90 days of backups on the same device as primary storage. The boxes can take snapshots as frequently as 15 minutes apart and replicate to an off-site system for disaster recovery.

The platform is based on what Nimble Storage calls a CASL (Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout) architecture that handles the data reduction and replication, as well as thin provisioning, diagnostics and optimization for random reads on SSDs. Nimble Storage CEO Varun Mehta said the company's systems work with backup software applications, but no backup software is required.

Mehta was the 11th employee at Data Domain and became its first vice president of engineering. He also worked for NetApp and Sun. Nimble Storage's other founder, chief technology officer (CTO) Umesh Maheshwari, was an engineer at Data Domain. Both left before EMC Corp. acquired Data Domain for $2.1 billion last year.

Mehta said Nimble Storage's target customer is midsize enterprise companies with approximately 200 to 2,000 employees that heavily use Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SQL Server, VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V. He said Nimble Storage's goal was to offer a scale-out iSCSI SAN along the lines of Dell EqualLogic with data reduction for backup that fueled Data Domain's success, all in one box.

"We have to be highly differentiated to go after the big guys," he said. "We've combined primary and secondary storage into one box. We've taken the best from EqualLogic and Data Domain, and combined them. The technology that emerged in 2005 is mainstream today, and that's the technology we hope to replace."

While Nimble uses the term deduplication in some of its press materials and on its website, its VP of marketing Dan Leary says the startup "does not deduplicate in the Data Domain sense, where all duplicate blocks are eliminated using a content-based signature. Our snapshot-based block sharing eliminates duplicate blocks across backups like deduplication systems. "

Pricing starts at approximately $50,000 for the CS220 and $100,000 for the CS240. Each system has four SSD slots and can hold from 750 GB to 1.5 TB of SSDs. All software features are included in the base price. The systems will be generally available in August, Mehta said.

By the end of the year, Mehta said, Nimble Storage will have a peer-to-peer (P2P) clustering option that allows customers to cluster up to six boxes, and a 10 gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) option.

Analyst: Nimble Storage first out, but competition coming

Lauren Whitehouse, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Nimble Storage is first out with this streamlined approach, although it may have company soon. (Greenbytes Inc. takes a similar approach with a system developed around modifications to ZFS).

"Nimble is going against preconceived notions about what data protection is," she said. "They have primary and secondary storage, with capture and movement technologies to create a data protection strategy and control over the file system, so when they're deduping they're tracking all the pieces. I haven't seen anybody else approach that. They've packaged it all in one box. You don't need Vendor A's storage, Vendor B's backup solution and Vendor C's deduplication."

Still, she said she knows of at least one more new vendor coming with a similar product although she can't identify the company yet.

Whitehouse also said Nimble Storage is missing one piece that some customers may want. "The potential drawback is, if somebody requires a physical tape copy for compliance or long-term retention, they would need integration with tape backup," she said. "At some point, Nimble may have to spin out to tape, and mount a snapshot volume to the backup source and create a tape copy."

Beta tester: Nimble system a chance to 'test something unique'

Beta tester Dave Conde, IT director of gas and water utilities software vendor eMeter Inc., is considering buying Nimble Storage products to complement his primary NetApp storage. Conde said he was a Data Domain customer at a previous job, and heard of Nimble through some of his old Data Domain contacts at the startup.

Conde said eMeter uses a NetApp FAS3020, but he likes the idea of having another storage system dedicated to certain applications.

"We wanted to do something beyond DAS for our mailbox storage," he said. "We have other storage needs beyond what we're doing with NetApp. The Nimble system was a great opportunity to test something unique from a storage perspective, and also to fill potential needs in the future.

"The thing we find intriguing about Nimble is the ability to put something new or move something that exists somewhere else and not have to back it up," he said. "Now we have a little bit of everything on it, databases, virtual machines and we just put an Exchange mailbox on it."

Conde said he hasn't tested replication between two Nimble Storage boxes, but that's on his radar for transactional data that doesn't require long-term retention. "We have a couple of locations, and if we had a Nimble in each location, we can really just set up data protection on the box and have it replicate to another location," he said. "Now you have backups running without the old style of backups. No agents, no dedicated software focused on backing something up. That's a hugely intriguing concept for us."

Conde said eMeter has experimented with SSDs on laptops, but noted the performance gains have been much better on the Nimble Storage systems.

"That's not tier 2 performance," he said. "They provide performance you'd expect from much more expensive storage systems. And the way they've designed it with commodity SSD drives, so as SSD drives evolve we can upgrade the cache capacity with just a couple of thousand dollars' worth of SSD drives."

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