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SGI picks up Copan, prepares to put a new spin on MAID arrays

With SGI acquiring MAID-maker Copan Systems at a clearance price, customers hope to see Copan disk arrays get a performance improvement, as well as easier and cheaper upgrades.

Following its acquisition of Copan Systems, Silicon Graphics International (SGI) will look to improve Copan's massive array of idle disks (MAID) spin-down technology. That will be necessary to save the product line, according to an analyst and a Copan customer who say the Copan concept was good but its technical execution fell short.

SGI picked up Copan's assets and engineering staff for $2 million in a foreclosure sale Tuesday, and will maintain Copan's Longmont, Colo., headquarters, according to Tony Carrozza, SGI's senior vice president of sales.

SGI isn't saying yet exactly how it will develop Copan's IP, which includes the disk drive spin-down software that let it pack hundreds of disk drives into a small footprint within its Revolution 300T/TX virtual tape library (VTL) and archiving products. While Copan initially popularized the MAID concept, other vendors such as EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems and Nexsan Technologies Inc. have added drive spin-down features to existing arrays since Copan began shipping products in 2004.

"We see potential for this product in the area of active archive and persistent data," Carrozza said.

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The current version of SGI came about last year when Rackable purchased the struggling SGI last year for $25 million and assumed the SGI brand. SGI's storage platform includes InfiniteStorage NAS and RAID systems, and Rackable Storage Servers.

"As evidenced by the Silicon Graphics acquisition, we will continue to look at opportunities in the marketplace like this, especially given the things that have been happening economically," Carrozza said, citing the SGI merger as an example of SGI's ability to easily integrate Copan.

Carrozza said Copan's customers numbered "in the hundreds rather than the thousands," and the vendor went through a round of layoffs in late 2008 and has operated without a CEO since Mark Ward stepped down. Rumors swirled for the last few months as the vendor looked for a buyer.

Users cite frustrations with technical execution of Copan's MAID

One problem Copan had was that competitors came out with more sophisticated MAID implementations. Copan's systems used only 25% of their disks at any time, which might be great for power consumption but not for performance. Vendors who followed Copan into MAID took a more granular approach, enabling spin-down on a LUN or volume group across RAID levels.

Copan customer Dean Flanders, head of informatics at the Friedrich Miescher Institute (FMI) in Basel, Switzerland, said his Copan system is "already moving toward the door" as SGI begins to absorb its new acquisition.

"Their technology and concept is great – we've just been frustrated with their technical execution," Flanders said. Originally purchased with a minimum performance requirement of 100 MBps, Flanders said the system was only able to deliver 40 MBps. But that "didn't really matter to users – the bigger issue was the cost of upgrades," Flanders said. "Their disks came in a nonstandard shelf size, so I couldn't just put their gear on another shelf. And every time I upgraded the system I'd have to replace all the controllers. I couldn't just buy new drives. I had to replace nearly every electrical component."

According to backup expert W. Curtis Preston, Flanders was not alone in this experience.

"[Copan] was supposed to be an inexpensive alternative to tape. Word is that it was anything but," Preston wrote to in an email. "Their version of MAID (which enforced a 25% power-on quota) in the end had major performance problems. When you need to back up, you need hundreds to thousands of megabytes per second. When you need that, you need to spin every spindle you have, and they kept 75% of them off. Then they added [data deduplication], and that made problems worse."

Flanders said he's still hoping Copan's original vision will improve under SGI. "They can fit 110 drives in a tray – nobody's beat that density yet," he said. "But at the moment we're looking at Nexsan and [DataDirect Networks (DDN)]."

Carrozza acknowledged that SGI will have to do some development work on Copan's products, but declined to disclose specifics. "We're looking at and planning enhancements," he said. "Some of what you've probably heard will be addressed, both in the Copan products themselves and in the extension of their technology."

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