Commoditise storage to slash costs using AoE, says Coraid

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Thanks to x86 and other “commodity” components, users usually get good value for money from their server systems. However, storage subsystems and their connectivity remain stubbornly complex and costly. This has got to change – and for some this has started to happen.

When I wrote about Coraid last summer, I wondered about storage users’ familiarity with ATA over Ethernet (AoE), especially when running Windows for which is fairly new. Coraid is belatedly betting its shirt on AoE which can be blisteringly fast. It developed the “protocol/compute layer” as far back as 2004 then donated it as open source to the Linux community, not then realising what it had; AoE has been part of the Linux kernel since 2005.

Coraid’s progress in the past year has been solid – a user base of around 1,500 customers compared with 1,000 a year ago – and expansion in Europe from its UK office as well as a small start in APAC. In its storage arrays, it has now added flash to mix and match with SAS and various SATA drives (in a choice of RAID levels or JBOD) in the SAN.

But CEO Kevin Brown has a bigger vision for its AoE approach – which is to drive a commodity pricing revolution for storage. “Storage is like a mainframe when rest of system has become commoditised” Brown told me. This contrasted with servers long commoditised with x86 and, for instance, a 10GbE port could cost under $500. (EMC and NetApp may not take this too seriously but could perhaps be caught short, especially at the low-end.)

Using Coraid’s AoE technique, the SAN (theirs or another’s), appears to VMware of Hyper-V as a single direct-attached storage (DAS) drive – as a single SCSI controller “except that it has latency under one second” Brown added. Then the Coraid architecture covers the whole network, both initiating and receiving the storage data requests that cross the Ethernet wires. This, he said, removed several layers of complexity and was simple to set up, not least because everyone’s server has long provided DAS connectivity.

The potential from this is manifesting itself in several ways that also help define Coraid’s roadmap for the coming months. For instance, Brown wants to complement AoE by making everything simple. So Coraid is aiming for an end-user on-screen Q&A to define the storage need without concern for LUNs or HBAs – from which the software automatically tailors all the configuring and manages day-to-day operation. This helps explain the company’s purchase of cloud orchestration software vendor Yunteq late last year as, for instance – it brought in a policy engine; the first fruits of this may appear mid-year.

In turn, this reflects another trend Brown told me he was witnessing. More and more internal and external clouds are appearing – and VARs were realising that, as well as reselling AoE, they could also start to offer cloud services of their own. However, that, in turn, put pressure on Coraid to automate its storage tiering management and to make sure security was sufficiently granular and robust (although the VARs can already provide complementary third party solutions). On the positive side, its own operating system and architecture was designed from scratch as distributed and scale-out, allowing very rapid expansion, as may be needed in clouds.

This week, Coraid announced a technology alliance partnership with Veeam. Veeam complements Coraid’s EtherDrive and EtherFlash with innovative data protection, recovery, DR and management for virtual data centres – that is designed from the ground up for virtualised server environments. Recovery can be for a whole VM or individual file or application item.

It has also not been lost on Coraid that, by controlling storage data traffic end-to-end across the network, it is well placed to provide useful performance measurement software. That could be another nice little earner (but no date has been set for that yet).

Brown sees little value in chasing after conservative enterprises with wall-to-wall Fibre Channel (FC) storage connectivity but everyone else is ripe for this AoE-based storage commoditisation to cut costs and boost performance. The coming year should be enough to confirm whether AoE is likely to break through to make commoditisation a reality.