Service provider wants storage defined by hardware, picks X-IO storage

BroadAspect CTO says he picked X-IO's ISE and Hyper ISE storage systems because of their unique hardware, not any software-defined features.

Despite all the talk about software-defined storage these days, the chief technology officer at service provider BroadAspect said he only wanted "dumb storage" to serve as the backbone for his company's cloud services.

When Sterling, Va.-based BroadAspect set out to upgrade its EMC Clariion CX4 SAN arrays last year, Chief Technology Officer Nick Ellermann realized most storage vendors emphasize software over their storage. He ended up buying four X-IO storage systems, which he said turned out to be not so dumb, although X-IO emphasizes its hardware architecture over separately licensed software features.

"EMC became more software-oriented than a storage hardware company," he said. "So, we went to NetApp and just about everybody else, and we saw they all had the same hardware in the same chassis with different software. We didn't see anything unique. Everybody was taking off-the-shelf servers with disk drives and SSD [solid-state drive] cache on top."

Ellermann wasn't looking for a lot of extra storage software features. He said he relies on VMware hypervisors for most of the management. He wanted a storage system with low-enough latency and high-enough predictable IOPS to give customers service-level agreements (SLAs) for its Infrastructure as a Service offering, and to meet BroadAspect's tight data center space and power requirements.

Ellermann "stumbled across" X-IO when another of the vendor's customers recommended its self-contained Intelligent Storage Element (ISE) systems.

After testing the systems, BroadAspect bought three X-IO ISE 230 systems with spinning disk and a Hyper ISE 730 with spinning disk and SSDs. BroadAspect uses the X-IO storage systems as the main back-end storage for its customers and runs its internal workloads on it. Ellermann said he plans to add a Hyper ISE 740 with greater capacity (28.8 TB vs. 21.6 TB for the 730).

All of the X-IO systems are 3U boxes with 40 drive slots. The Hyper ISE system has 10 SSDs and 30 hard drives.

He said he uses his older EMC arrays for Tier 2 storage but will replace them with Dell PowerVault servers. "The main problem is space and power requirements," Ellermann said. "Our data center space is precious around here."

Ellermann said the Hyper ISE performance is good enough to offer performance guarantees that require BroadAspect to give customer credits if they're missed.

"What we call our high-performance storage is running on Hyper ISE," he said. "As a service provider, until the last year we'd never been able to give people a true SLA around storage. We'd kind of make stuff up -- 'Yeah, we'll try to do that, we'll try to maintain those performance levels' -- but other than moving data to comply with the performance they were paying for, we had no control. We had a big limitation on IOPS and bandwidth throughput. Now we've increased our storage throughput so much that we don't have to think about it. We can put our name behind our performance."

Part of the performance comes from the way X-IO automatically tiers storage inside the box. Ellermann looked at Dell Compellent Data Progression and other storage with auto-tiering, but he said they required a lot of work to set up policies for tiers.

"X-IO is fully automated, and its tiering doesn't run once a day, it runs every five seconds," he said.

Previously known as Xiotech, X-IO acquired the technology behind ISE from Seagate in 2007. It began selling ISE systems in 2008 and added Hyper ISE with flash in 2008.

"X-IO sees storage differently than other storage vendors," Ellermann said. "Most storage vendors are software vendors. They're building commodity-based hardware and putting their secret-sauce software on top of it. Talking to big-boy vendors and some of the startups, I was getting beaten to death on feature, feature, feature; and every feature on their price list was $20,000 to $40,000. I have VMware in the hypervisor layer; I don't need all those features in the hardware layer. We have Veeam [backup software] for data replication, [so] I don't need that on the storage layer.

"The first time I talked to X-IO, I said, 'I just need dumb storage,'" he said. "X-IO would say they're not dumb storage, but they don't have all these extra features."

X-IO's only licensed feature is active-active mirroring, which mirrors data by the block between two nodes. Ellermann said he doesn't use that because he has no customer requirements for it yet.

Ellermann said he has asked X-IO to add a few features, such as thin provisioning and snapshotting. He said he can get those features now through VMware and his backup software, but has specific cases where they would help more at the storage layer.

He said he's also impressed with X-IO's self-healing capabilities that automatically rebuild failing drives and with its five-year guarantee. "Within the five years we hope to never have to touch the kit again," Ellermann said.

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