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3PAR slims down thin provisioning by putting it into silicon

3PAR launches T-Class enterprise storage system with ASIC that enables thin provisioning capabilities in silicon while doubling the performance of prior S-class disk arrays.

3PAR is rolling out an upgrade to its InServ Storage Server enterprise SAN with its T-Series. The T-Series InServ line of arrays, set to launch today, features an ASIC that allows silicon-based thin provisioning capabilities.

3PAR is trying to stay a step ahead of the thin provisioning game now that its major competitors -- Hitachi Data Systems, EMC and IBM -- have all added thin provisioning to their products in the past year. "Everybody's jumped on the thin provisioning bandwagon," said analyst Tom Trainer of Analytico. "Everybody has it in some way shape and form."

The goal of thin provisioning is to optimize capacity utilization by allocating disk storage only as it is needed.

The T-Class arrays will replace 3PAR's S-Class enterprise arrays, but the management software, and features such as remote replication and remote copy, remain the same as those on the S-Class as well as the company's E-Class midrange systems.

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Each InServ storage server consists of two or more controller nodes with disk arrays. The InServ T400 includes two to four controllers per cluster; the T800 scales to eight controllers per cluster. The T400 has 64 Fibre Channel SAN ports and scales to 640 drives while the T800 has 128 FC ports and scales to 1,280 drives and around 600 TB. Both models have GigE ports built in and support iSCSI. The systems support FC and SATA drives.

Zero detection processing in silicon

According to Craig Nunes, marketing vice president of 3PAR, the new T-Series platform features a "thin processor" capable of running applications that improve the performance of thin provisioning. One application is fat-to-thin volume conversion, which uses a zero detection algorithm to identify a string of binary zeroes on disk and virtualize them instead of writing them to capacity.

This feature allows customers to migrate data onto T-Class arrays using only a small percentage of the capacity taken up on the original array. However, fat-to-thin conversion won't be available until 3PAR upgrades its InForm operating system.

Nunes said that the new ASIC in the T-Series significantly boosts performance. 3PAR posted Storage Performance Council Benchmark 1 (SPC-1) results of over 224,989.65 SPC-1 IOPS and an SPC-1 price performance of $9.30/SPC-1 IOPS for the T-Class arrays. 3PAR's last benchmark numbers for S-Class posted in May of 2004 were 100,045.74 SPC-1 IOPS and $14.81/SCP-1 IOPS.

Trainer calls the zero detection algorithm "a unique differentiator" for 3PAR. "The fact that it's built into the chip tells you some things about how far ahead they're thinking," he said. According to Trainer, it usually takes 18 months to thee years to build a custom ASIC, and to able to perform zero detection in a custom ASIC "will make migrations much faster and allow for shrinkage in the actual physical storage you're going to need."

Performance trumps thin provisioning

Omniture, a web analytics company, has been a 3PAR customer since November 2006. Travis Smith, systems administrator, says he started with 160 TB of storage on an InServ S800, and is now up to seven units and around 2 PB and is adding another 500 TB on a new T800.

But Smith says it was speed rather than thin provisioning that sold him on 3PAR, and he considers increased IOPS and throughput the key to the upgrade. "Performance was one of the main reasons we bought 3PAR," he said. "The other main reason was they don't take a lot of care and feeding, one guy can manage a ton of stuff. You can automate just about everything on them. Once you know what you're doing, you can set one up and get everything carved up really quick."

As for thin provisioning, Smith adds, "We thought it was interesting, but for what we used them for it's not useful to us." However, he did leave the door open to using the new fat-to-thin provisioning. "The conceivable use case is as we migrate stuff around, it would let us reclaim space that wasn't being used without having to clear off an entire volume, turn that into free space and cut it back up."

Nunes said the T Series will have about a 10 percent premium over the S class, with an entry level price of $130,000 for two controllers, 16 drives and about 2.4 TB.

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