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The Coming Wave Of Plug-And-Play Storage

Bootable dongles turn standard servers into storage appliances.

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Building custom storage equipment has never been easier thanks to the development of plug-and-play technology that turns an ordinary low-cost, industry-standard server into a storage appliance.

At least three vendors are now selling storage-specific operating systems embedded as firmware on a bootable module. The modules plug into an IDE port on nearly any standard server, turning the server into a NAS or iSCSI appliance.

After the module, known as a "dongle," is plugged into the IDE port, the installer turns the server on to boot the storage operating system, which in turn automatically configures the server as a storage appliance. No other software or storage media is required.

While the technology has been around for several years, the growth in the custom storage market and the entry of two new vendors into the U.S. custom-system channel over the past year are setting the stage for more widespread adoption, system builders say.

System builders that have tested the dongles say they make building storage appliances much easier. "This really opens the floodgate for resellers to build their own powerful storage systems," said James Huang, product marketing specialist for Amax Information Technologies, Fremont, Calif.

The dongles offer several advantages over traditional storage-building technology, said Barron Mertens, CEO of DSG Storage, London, Ontario, which integrates NAS and iSCSI appliances using dongles from Wasabi Systems, Norfolk, Va. Because the dongles are solid-state, there is less concern over failure, which eliminates the need for the extra drives required by some storage software, he said. "FalconStor Software, for instance, needs two hard drives to do the operating systems for redundancy," Mertens said.

But more importantly, the module has plug-and-play capability. "There's no cabling or mounting of hard drives. There's no configurationit just appears as an IDE hard drive," Mertens said. "And most motherboards are set by default to boot from an IDE master device."

Plug-and-play capability also gives users the advantage of prototyping different types of storage devices before putting them into operation, Mertens said.

There are currently three companies developing dongles for building simple plug-and-play storage appliances: Wasabi Systems; Puchheim, Germany-based Open-E; and the ANStor64 division of Cutting Edge, El Cajon, Calif.

Wasabi, a storage veteran in the U.S. market, recently added an iSCSI initiator to its Wasabi Storage Builder series of software. The software is built on the NetBSD kernel and then flash-copied onto a dongle.

The company offers two versions of its software: Wasabi Storage Builder for NAS automatically configures a commodity server as a NAS appliance, while Wasabi Storage Builder for IP-SAN configures the server as an iSCSI array, said Jim Schrand, vice president of marketing at Wasabi.

The IP-SAN version has an iSCSI initiator, so custom-system builders can build either a standard NAS appliance, with its own integrated storage, or a NAS gateway, which connects to other storage arrays over an IP network to serve the files on those arrays to users across a LAN, Schrand said.

Custom-system builders that have used the Wasabi technology say it is a great solution for building entry-level storage appliances. Mertens called it an elegant solution because of its efficient use of the NetBSD platform. "We like what they are doing," he said. "Wasabi has about half of the NetBSD kernel development team, so they can modify the kernel without having to share the modifications."

However, because of the NetBSD-based code, the Wasabi software is more limited in terms of hardware support than similar offerings from Open-E, which bases its software on Linux, Mertens said. He also said the efficiency of the NetBSD code is lost when the appliances are used with higher-performance applications.

The NAS and the IP-SAN versions of the Wasabi software are both available in entry-level, SMB and enterprise versions to system builders via Bell Microproducts, with complete Wasabi-based storage devices available from Xtore, City of Industry, Calif. End-user list prices start at about $495.

Wasabi plans to increase its support for RAID vendors later this year. The company currently supports RAID adapters from Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), San Diego, but will add support for adapters from LSI Logic, Milpitas, Calif., and Taiwan-based Areca, Schrand said. The company also plans to add software RAID, as well as a low-cost option to build a combined NAS/iSCSI appliance, he said.

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Open-E recently set up a U.S. sales office to complement its hiring of a new support person in Atlanta. A handful of U.S.-based system builders have built storage appliances using the company's Open-E dongles, said Krzysztof Franek, founder and managing director of Open-E. "But what we are missing is market presence here," he said.

Open-E offers three types of dongles, all of which use software based on Linux. They include a NAS model, a NAS model with extended software RAID and an iSCSI model. The iSCSI version was recently enhanced with volume replication, InfiniBand support and support for Xyratex enclosure services, which allow monitoring of appliances based on Havant, U.K.-based Xyratex's platforms for conditions such as temperature, fan speed and hard-drive problems.

All three are available in a SOHO version for small networks, an SMB version for companies with up to 100 users and an enterprise version for companies with more than 100 users. The company plans to unveil its combination NAS/iSCSI dongle later this year.

Franek said Open-E will eventually offer 64-bit versions of its software, but there is no pressing need for them at the moment. "People talk about it, but they don't really use it," he said. "More are talking about it than using it. We will have it when the market says it needs it. We always listen to the market."

Open-E has no minimum order requirement and no license fees. The company, which sells exclusively through OEMs and the channel, offers qualified system builders a dongle free of charge for testing purposes, Franek said. Its distributors include Amax; Condre Storage, Minneapolis; and ThinkCP, Los Angeles.

Amax's Huang said the Open-E product allows the building of storage devices similar in function to lower-end models from EMC or Milpitas-based Engenio Information Technologies, but at a much lower cost. "For products and features, it's the best," he said.

The newest of the three dongle vendors, Cutting Edge, a NAS and iSCSI appliance manufacturer, established a new division in June to sell disk-on-module units for turning servers into NAS or iSCSI combination appliances. The device can also be used to develop a diskless NAS head for SAN applications, said Gary Goodman, vice president and general manager of the ANStor64 division.

Cutting Edge developed the software years ago for its own appliances, and about 18 months ago added native 64-bit capability, Goodman said. The software, based on Linux Kernel 2.6, also includes built-in remote replication, mirroring, IP failover, snapshots, iSCSI target and initiator, Web-based management and security features.

Goodman, who, until recently, handled U.S. sales for Open-E and had also worked with Wasabi, said Cutting Edge is just beginning to work with the channel. "Before I came, they didn't have the expertise to go to the channel and find customers and not compete with itself," he said.

The ANStor64 dongle started shipping in late June. The list price of the software for the AMD Opteron, Intel Xeon or Intel 32-bit platforms is about $1,200 for the NAS version and $750 for the iSCSI version. A third version that allows the same server to act both as a NAS appliance and an iSCSI array lists for about $1,500, the company said.

Cutting Edge will continue to sell its own custom storage appliances, mainly to the government sector, while using its new ANStor64 division to work with custom-system builders looking to easily build storage devices, Goodman said.

System builders have other options, of course. Microsoft's Windows Storage Server, available to larger system builders and OEMs, can be used to build NAS appliances, iSCSI SAN devices, or a combination of the two, after Microsoft acquired iSCSI target technology in March from String Bean Software, Montgomery Village, Md.

One system builder, though, said the dongles are not only less expensive, but easier to use and support. "Windows Storage Server is a downgrade version of Windows Server," the system builder said. "It needs much more documentation, and needs someone who is very technical."

System builders can also build storage appliances by adding iSCSI target software such as PyX from SBE, San Ramon, Calif., or StarWind from Rocket Division Software, Kyiv, Ukraine, to a Windows- or Linux-based server. However, such software could result in performance issues or interfere with antivirus security measures.

It is also possible to turn servers into storage devices using software from companies such as FalconStor, Melville, N.Y., and DataCore Software, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., both of which develop software that gives Windows-based servers data-backup and protection capabilities with advanced features like data snapshots, mirroring, auto failover and high availability.

As custom storage solutions gain momentum within the channel, vendors are stepping forward to support the trend. Plug-and-play dongles are an option that could help accelerate the trend.

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