The latest buzz is cloud computing. Not that it is a new idea, but some think its time has come while others believe it will eventually be the dominant method of IT provision to businesses. The only thing absolutely certain is that it is happening now.
3PAR, which has long described its systems as providing ‘utility' storage—as in utilities such as gas, electricity and water supplies—seems well-placed to cash in on the cloud. The parallel ideas of a ‘utility' (an on-demand supply to your home or business) and a ‘cloud' (an IT resource "out-there" across the ether to tap into, usually across the Internet) go well together conceptually.
3PAR announced last week that Attenda, a leading European specialist in the provision of application support over the Internet and enterprise applications, chose 3PAR to provide the foundation storage for its cloud computing based managed services. Attenda claims a significant competitive advantage from being able to save costs in consolidating its storage infrastructure and then passing this on to clients. It also expects "superior business agility and unmatched storage flexibility" to handle clients' requests.
Quite a few companies provide storage hardware and software, so we need to consider why designing storage from the ground up as a ‘utility' à la 3PAR is likely to be better suited than most for supporting an ISP or a managed services cloud?
What an ISP does not want is to be overly-concerned with the physical architecture; it just wants to be able to bolt on extra storage and for it to run at optimum performance. Nor does it want to be concerned with moving data between tiers of storage. Conversely, it does want resilience. In effect it needs an ‘out-of-the-box' system to plug straight in and which thereafter runs itself—but which grows as needed.
While no such system is 100% there yet, 3PAR's InServ storage server hardware-software combination comes about as close as one can get at present. The architecture was designed with ISPs in mind so it is a self-contained, virtualised, tightly-clustered array which maintains RAID resilience. The storage is dynamically tiered in a non-disruptive manner, bypassing administrative headaches in moving data between tiers.
The system's use of thin provisioning then ensures that when new storage capacity is added it is automatically incorporated into the pool and load balanced. Thin provisioning along with virtualisation helps boost usage of total disk capacity while also meaning purchases of additional storage can be made in small increments only as demand dictates.
I took some convincing of the claim that high disk utilisation would not seriously impact performance; I now better understand how its wide-striping of the data across the physical drives minimises the contention that dents performance. Somewhere in there is ‘magic' achieved using its own specially designed ASIC which Craig Nunes, 3PAR's VP of worldwide marketing, told me boosts resilient RAID 5 performance to within 10% of fast RAID 10 with two thirds less capacity overhead.
"We had a false start in 2000-1," said Nunes, referring to the failure of xSPs on traditional dedicated infrastructure when there was an IT recession previously. "This was not a financially viable business model. Virtualised, shared infrastructures enable xSP business models today.” Back then, he added, there was a glut of capacity in the marketplace, but "IT organisations have done a better job of managing capacity and, therefore, capacity purchases need to keep pace with data growth.” As a result, demand for storage systems was pushing ahead so that 3PAR's business was now growing at 50–60%, he said.
In addition, higher storage utilisation and thin provisioning means a smaller data centre footprint for the same amount of data—so less power and heat output, making it also a greener approach. Nunes said businesses were also looking for scale economies, shared infrastructure (for enterprises as well as ISPs in fact) and fault-tolerant resilience.
"In tough times it means getting more out of a smaller infrastructure," said Nunes, adding: "In 10–15 years it will be the exception to build out your own IT data centre."
Probably, he will be proved right. The big unknown is what 'utility' storage systems will look like by then. But right now 3PAR is well placed to populate plenty of clouds (hosting storage rather than daffodils—and my apologies to Mr Wordsworth).
As more providers jump on the bandwagon and competition grows, it will be those who can keep innovating to deliver what the cloud needs who will be the winners.