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Apple updates XSan software, discontinues XServe arrays

Apple refreshes its SAN file system software, but dumps its XServe RAID disk array in favor of reselling a RAID disk subsystem from Promise Technology.

Apple Inc. updated its XSan file system this week, but it will discontinue its aging XServe RAID hardware and will instead resell a third-party RAID storage subsystem.

According to Eric Zelenka, senior product line manager of Apple's server and storage software, the XServe RAID disk arrays will remain available and qualified to work with the new version of Apple's XSan software, dubbed XSan 2, "as long as supplies last." However, Promise Technology Inc.'s VTrack E-Class RAID storage subsystem will be available through the Apple store and resellers.

The VTrack E-Class disk array adds support for 4 Gbit Fibre Channel, as well as SATA or SAS drives and active/active RAID controllers. That may seem basic or even behind the times for some SAN vendors, but XServe RAID had not been updated since 2005, and supported only 2 Gbit Fibre Channel drives in a single-controller disk array.

The VTrack array comes in three configurations: a 6 TB, eight-drive SATA model priced at $11,999; a 12 TB, 16-drive SATA model priced at $14,999, and a "high-performance" configuration consisting of 16 SAS disks that can hold up to 4.8 TB, priced at $18,999. XSan 2 software is available at $999 per node. Apple will provide troubleshooting support for the VTrack disk arrays, but if a problem is found with a non-Apple component, customers will have to use that vendor for support.

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"This is going to disappoint some customers who are very black-and-white about Apple," said Ezra Gottheil, analyst with Technological Business Research. "There's going to be some concern about support." According to Mike Joyce, senior director of marketing for Promise Technology, the company offers 24/7 support and a three-year warranty for its disk arrays.

Scott Templeton, partner and executive producer for Pie Town Productions in Los Angeles, said the VTrack array is an improvement. Pie Town has 100 TB of XServe RAID storage, but has been using the Promise Technologies' disk array with Final Cut Pro for three weeks. The VTrack disk array has made it faster and easier for employees to get up and running each day than the SAN the company used previously. That one required employees to mount partitions one by one, causing a 10-minute delay every morning. Otherwise, "the biggest tribute to this process is that we've noticed no difference" with the new disk array, he said.

Chris Donoyan, president of Los Angeles-based reseller HomeRun Media Inc., said that most of the Apple shops he works with so far "are happy we finally have a solution that supports 4 Gigabit Fibre Channel."

Will more hardware partners follow?

However, Donoyan said, some questions still remain about the new deal, such as whether or not Apple has added any "secret sauce" to Promise Technology's firmware. "The biggest question I'm hearing is whether or not other vendors will be qualified," he added. "More choice is a good thing."

Still, Gottheil said he expects Apple to branch out. "At some point, my guess is in the next two years, you'll probably see Apple work with more hardware vendors," he said. "They have a very strong and loyal market among creative professionals, but I think they'll be looking at a new space — very small businesses where they can add value through software ease of use."

Tim Bajarin, principal analyst for Creative Strategies, a Silicon Valley analyst firm, said the new strategy shows that Apple is more serious about storage. "The fact that Apple has partnered with Promise opens them up to an even broader market for storage," he said. "They now see storage as an important part of their business, and you'll see them doing more in this market."

New XSan features include Spotlight data indexing and search

Apple has focused its storage product development on the new XSan 2 software, adding integration into the Mac OS X operating system, and data migration and access features across multiple SANs.

XSan 2 "completely redesigns" the XSan administrative management tool, called XSan Admin, "taking multistage processes down to one button," according to Zelenka. One example of this is volume expansion, which in the past took five to eight steps. Now choosing the storage that should be used to expand the volume is a one-step process.

XSan 2 management is connected to SAN setup wizards in OS X Leopard Server Assistant. Further integration with OS X brings some of Apple's more famous consumer software features to XSan, including Spotlight data indexing and search across all storage networks; Cover Flow, a feature first designed for the iPod that allows users to flip through file images quickly; and QuickLooks, which allows users to preview a file without opening its associated application.

"The ability to search across all networks with this release is really exceptional," Bajarin said. The feature is built into the OS, requires no user intervention and will search terabytes of data on XSan and any attached server or workstation. Spotlight indexes metadata, as well as data within files, and automatically reindexes data when files are modified.

Another new feature, MultiSAN, allows servers and workstations to connect to multiple SANs. Unlike previous releases that only allowed migration between XSans via Gigabit Ethernet, XSan 2 allows users to migrate data over Fibre Channel.

Bajarin said he hopes to see Apple get more proactive about storage in the future. "They have to be looking at the next-generation architectures; they have to be aware of what customers are going to want 12 to 18 months out," he said.

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