All at once I saw a cloud – was it a hosting of 3PAR storage?

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Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

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.