Commodity Hard Drives Deliver Low-Cost Storage

When RAID first hit the scene in 1987, a 40-MB Iomega hard drive was selling for $1,799, or about $45 per megabyte. Little did they know -- those who invented the so-called redundant array of inexpensive disks -- just how inexpensive hard drive storage would ultimately become.

By August of 2000, the cost-per-megabyte was less than $1. Today the cost is down to a nickel, per gigabyte. With the cost of hard drives falling like rain in Seattle, reseller opportunities continue to emerge to leverage commodity storage as an alternative to tape drives that's not only cheaper and faster, but less complex, driver-free and offers on-premise control and security.

Following this arc of innovation, companies such as Accordance Systems, Drobo, and Iomega are offering intriguing products.

Some solutions even can boost computer uptime. Among the more unique and innovative offerings we've seen here in the CRN Test Center are the ARAID products from Accordance Systems. These all-metal enclosures slide into one or two 5.25-inch external PC drive slots (depending on whether using 2.5- or 3.5-inch drives) and create a two-drive RAID 1 array that automatically and continuously mirrors one drive to the other.

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Each ARAID drive enclosure includes two lockable drive trays, which carry drives in and out of their bays on rails. "A lot of our customers get a third tray so they can rotate in a third drive and keep an off-site as you would with tape," said Steve Johnson, president of Accordance Systems, , Des Moines, Iowa.

But that's where ARAID's similarity ends with tape. The Accordance solution requires no backup routines or software and no long tape streaming sessions. "And not only does restoring from tape take time, but a lot of times it isn't successful," claimed Johnson.

In our tests of the ARAID 3500 (for 3.5-inch drives) and M300 (for 2.5-inch) systems here in the CRN Test Center, we indeed found a simple and reliable solution. If either primary or secondary drive fails, the opposite healthy drive becomes the primary and an alarm sounds. If both drives fail and a third drive is present, it can be inserted and used immediately as a boot volume. Then, once a new secondary drive is inserted, the ARAID immediately begins to replicate the healthy bits to it.

Also making RAID transparent is Drobo with its recently expanded its line of compact, high-density SAN devices for small business. Our tests of the Drobo B800i iSCSI Storage SAN for Business revealed an eight-bay iSCSI SAN that was the easiest we've ever set up.

Next: How Does Drobo Do It?

Drobo's BeyondRAID embedded system eliminates the need to make decisions, such as which RAID level to select, how many drives to put in and of what size, spin speed and SATA version they need to be. Out of the box, simply insert one or more 3.5-inch raw SATA drives (no rails or carriers needed) of any capacity up to 3TB and boot the Drobo. Its clever firmware does the rest, figuring out the best way to protect the data using with the drives it was given.

If more storage space is needed, simply insert any drive into an available slot and Drobo absorbs its capacity and expands available space. Once all eight slots are occupied, simply remove the smallest drive and pop in a larger one. Data is automatically redistributed; LEDs on the effected drives alternate between green and yellow to warn against removing them while it's replicating.

Drobo Dashboard, the company's administrative tool for MacOS X and Windows, is used for initially configuring network settings, creating and modifying volumes and for taking data snapshots. Drive formatting choices include NTFS, multi-host and none; NTFS, HFS+ and FAT32 file systems are supported (EXT3 is in beta). Thin provisioning is hard wired, and permits volumes to be created in excess of physical capacity so all hard drives don't have to be purchased until needed.

In the years since 1987, Iomega has done some innovating of its own. The company's StorCenter px-6 300d is a six-bay NAS array that resellers can purchase unpopulated or made to order. Our test unit obtained an IP address out of the box and was ready to serve about two minutes after plugging it in. To administer, simply browse to its acquired IP address, displayed on the front LCD panel, and a full-featured admin utility appears.

Among the most versatile network storage boxes we've seen, Iomega's px-Series can be configured as iSCSI (block-level) SAN or NAS (or both), with support for all major sharing protocols including support for Apple Time Machine. The unit supports RAID 0, 1, 10, 5, 5+1 and 6, SSDs and drive-less configuration; carriers support 2.5- and 3.5-inch drives.

Iomega also includes Personal Cloud, which works with its Storage Manager software for Mac OS X and Windows to map "cloud-based" NAS drives to a user's local file system. Though all that mapping might look a bit messy on Windows, Iomega's pragmatic approach solves what can often be a complicated and circular maze of settings, windows and control panels when setting up Windows File Sharing.

One more thing about the Accordance solution. Since it backs up a system's boot disk, there's another benefit that only a solution like ARAID can provide: "The other big thing is uptime," said Johnson. "You'll never crash a system because of a failed hard drive," he said. That's because the host system sees a single, logical SATA or IDE drive where there are actually two. ARAID requires no special software or drivers and works on any platform, including Linux, Mac OS X, Windows, and any embedded system that supports IDE or SATA.

Advances in the embedded systems that run today's RAID, SAN and NAS devices have opened a new world of opportunities for local, networked and cloud-based storage. And as storage prices continue to fall, reseller fortunes will continue to rise.