Storage Vendors Weigh Options at IDF

It was dueling acronyms at the Intel Developer Forum, as executives discussed the storage market and technology transitions for DAS, iSCSI, PCI Express, SAN and SAS. David Morgenstern was in attendance, and he offers a brief rundown of the briefings.

SAN JOSE, CALIF.—Transitions can be trying, whether they affect personal lives or computer lines. Changes of the latter sort were on the minds of attendees at last weeks Intel Developer Forum here, especially when it came to storage. Discussion of new hardware standards dominated many panels at the conference, and products that incorporated them cropped up in booths across the show floor.

Along with system suppliers, purveyors of host adapter cards eyed developments in PCI Express. Storage vendors mulled recent developments in iSCSI networking as well as Serial ATA (SATA) and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS)hard drives. And others considered the pace of technology integration.

Several developers offered their views on a panel discussion towards the end of the conference. Here are a number of transitions that caught my attention:

  • SAN integration was on the mind of Intel Storage Components Division General Manger Mike Wall. He tracked the increasing rate of integration for I/O components. Thanks to integration, the number of individual ASICs needed for a mid-range RAID controller card has been cut in half and performance has risen, driving a tenfold reduction in cost over the past half-decade.

    How low can costs go? Wall outlined a forthcoming, highly integrated successor to the current XScale microarchitecture: a switch-on-a-chip (SOC) design that leverages the companys current 90-nanometer process. The new processor is due in 2004.

  • Meanwhile, some vendors want to avoid the card altogether. According to LSI Logic Marketing Director Jim Evans, single-chip RAID controllers are the companys fastest-growing market segment. Used for DAS (direct-attach-storage) products, the chip implements RAID on the motherboard (ROMB) and is naturally the lowest-cost solution; it could be cost-effective for vendors, but only as long as almost every customer also purchases additional storage systems. Hence, Evans advised that the architecture should be confined to select lines, such as entry-level servers, where the “take rate is very high.“
  • New interoperability between SAS and SATA drives will give storage vendors a way to leverage design costs, according to Jeff Jenkins, Hewlett-Packard director of marketing for server storage and infrastructure. Just as platform vendors do now, storage companies will be able to reduce costs by using a single logic-board design and backplane for both high-performance and down-market products. The difference will then be determined primarily by the type of drives populating the slots.

    Jenkins also mentioned a new market segment for low-cost networked products: low-availability online storage. One application would be the storage of hospital records. For example, each individual record is only needed infrequently, whenever the patient is in the hospital. But the record should be kept online, since the data may be required quickly in case of medical emergency. Still, the records dont need to fill up the high-availability (and high-cost) primary storage system.

  • Finally, Network Appliance Vice President Rich Clifton predicted iSCSI networking would offer small departments an alternative to Fibre Channel-based SANs. He added that the entry-level costs and support complexities of Fibre are “impediments to deployment.“ Still, he expected iSCSI to grow in importance over the next several years.

Of course, there are always impediments to the deployment of any technology, old or new. Acceptance can be a tricky thing; a product announcement or a trade show demo isnt the same thing as an actual implementation of a new technology in a workplace. Its easier to talk about a technology transition than it is to get customers to walk the walk and actually cut a purchase order.

For the near future, market acceptance of any new product—storage or otherwise—will depend on the corresponding rate of economic turnaround.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.