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No-maintenance disk array aims to eliminate hard drive swapping

Startup Atrato Inc. is basing its new disk array on a concept called SAID (Sealed Array of Identical Disks) to bridge the gap between performance and high capacity. The idea is to offer an array that can run for the duration of a three- to five-year lease period without requiring any maintenance.

Storage newcomer Atrato Inc. this month began shipping its Velocity system, which it describes as a parallel-access disk array that performs at 11,500 IOPS and holds terabytes of data without requiring drive replacements or hardware maintenance for three to five years.

The Westminster, Colo.-based startup claims that customers of its storage systems won't have to choose between speed and capacity. Atrato's first system, the Velocity1000 (V1000), is a 3U box containing sealed subunits of disk drives, each of which holds a set of four miniunits inside. Each subunit and miniunit is referred to as a SAID -- a Self-managing Array of Identical Disks. The sealed disk canisters contain enough individual hard drives to offer parity protection for data in virtual RAID groups and to automatically swap in spares if one hard drive should fail.

One-third of the V1000 box is taken up by dual controllers running Atrato's proprietary virtual RAID software that distributes software-based virtual RAID over the hard drives in clusters of SAID units. The software also detects disk drive failures and can fix most drive problems on the fly, according to Atrato CEO Dan McCormick.

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"In nine out of 10 cases, when users remove a failed hard drive from a system and ship it back to the manufacturer, the failure analysis process returns a finding of 'no trouble found,' " McCormick said. The Velocity software will identify and reset those false failures, he added. If the failure is real, the product takes the drive offline and uses proprietary diagnostic and error-correcting codes to fix the problem.

McCormick declined to say exactly which drive errors the box can fix, or how it does so. He did say Atrato's management team and engineers have a lot of experience working for drive makers, such as Seagate Technology, and claimed that Atrato has been granted more than 100 patents for its self-healing features. The idea, he said, is to have a system that can run for the duration of a three- to five-year lease period without requiring any maintenance. As such, the box also features redundant data paths to every disk, as well as redundant power supplies and networking ports.

Parallel storage for video, digital media

The V1000 holds SATA disks ranging from 100 GB to 320 GB, with a maximum raw capacity of 50 TB. Like other recent parallel storage offerings, such as Pivot3's RAIGE disk array and NEC's HydraStor, Velocity allows customers to customize the amount of data protection by determining the capacity within the box that will be dedicated to replacing failed drives. For a box with 50 TB, the usable capacity could be from 20 TB to 40 TB, depending on the amount of tolerance built in.

Each Velocity unit can also be clustered with other 3U units to make a much larger parallel processing system. McCormick said that the largest production installation of Velocity units to date is about a dozen, with capacity in the petabyte range. That customer is a large government agency, which McCormick said he prohibited from identifying. Atrato claims to have other early adopters, but none have agreed to be named yet. Atrato is also coy about the exact pricing of the box, but McCormick said it will generally run "in the couple hundred thousand dollar range."

One analyst said the SAID system will most likely find a home in vertical markets, such as video surveillance and digital media, where large I/O streams run up against a lack of storage expertise. "If you're running a large-scale data center with 10 to 20 admins, doing commercial data processing, this product is not likely to be a good fit," said Russ Fellows, an Evaluator Group analyst. Those large data centers tend to be comfortable doing drive maintenance and might see a sealed disk array as a risk.

Fellows added, "But iif you're setting up video surveillance at a 7-Eleven, for example, you're going to want a lot of data capacity as you add newer and higher definition video cameras, but you're not going to want a technician to have to do regular maintenance on the storage box." Other possible applications include data processing for financial services companies, which tend to be small companies crunching lots of market data.

Beating Xiotech to market?

Atrato founders McCormick and Jonathan Hall previously worked for Xiotech Corp. and Seagate. Now they are bringing Atrato out of stealth as Xiotech prepares to unveil its new RAID technology based on the acquisition of Seagate's Advanced Storage Architecture business unit in November. Atrato executives said their approach differs from Xiotech's, although exactly how the products differ won't be clear until Xiotech reveals more details next month at Storage Networking World.

Both Atrato and Xiotech are looking to bridge the gap between rising disk capacities and relatively flat performance rates more cost-effectively than solid-state disks, according to Fellows. "On a cost-per-gigabyte basis, the price [of the Velocity system] is relatively high, but if you need a high I/O rate for large amounts of data, it's much cheaper than terabytes of solid-state disk," he said.


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