Startup storage firm announces NAS/SAN hybrid

San Jose (CA) - A new storage networking products firm funded by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's Tako Ventures has announced its entry into the already fiercely competitive enterprise storage hardware market. Pillar Data Systems' Axiom line can act as network-attached storage as well as conventional SAN storage for different network hosts.

The system includes two hardware tiers separating the host from the storage: The Pilot Policy Controller is a separate component whose primary job, according to Pillar's VP of marketing, Jeff Bell, is to monitor and report the health of the system to Axiom's Storage Management Software. On the back end, the Pilot interfaces directly with the Slammer storage controller units, which virtualize the entire storage pool, making it available to various hosts as either NAS or SAN.

Slammer performs this, Bell told Tom's Hardware Guide, utilizing proprietary AI routines that interact with the NAS and SAN controller nodes separately. These nodes, said Bell, "sit next to each other, share the back-end storage, [which] is sliced, diced, and virtualized across the multiple users of the system." The AI accomplishes this, added Bell, "based on user-defined, business-level parameters." These parameters are entered into the Storage Management Software once and once only. "You answer four or five different questions...and the system takes all of those inputs and decides how to lay the data out on the system, and what sort of priorities to give it, and how to funnel the data through the system to achieve the relative priorities that you set for it," said Bell.

The Slammer connects directly to Pillar's "Bricks", which are the storage components themselves. Axiom works only with Bricks; the system will not integrate with existing or legacy drives. John Webster, a storage industry analyst with Data Mobility Group, analyzed Axiom's configuration diagrams for Tom's Hardware Guide, and discovered this: "Three-tiered storage is carved out of individual SATA disks. Higher performance allocated to the outer disk tracks/lower performance on the inner tracks on the theory that seek times are lower for the outer that the inner tracks. They call this 'revolutionary,' but it's really a performance tuning technique that's well-known to old mainframers. I guess what's revolutionary is [that they're] doing this with SATA disk in an open systems environment and with a policy engine managing the allocation."

Marc Farley, a storage analyst with Building Storage, who has worked directly with Pillar Data Systems, told us today, "I happen to like their approach for how they get quality of service in storage, and I think that's the thing that's really going to make or break Pillar's product - the ability to execute on the quality of service capability. A lot of people really want to figure out how to get less important applications, if you will, on lower-cost storage, and I think the way Pillar's product is designed will give them a lot of flexibility to do that."

In today's Bricks, said Bell, "we have today SATA drives; about six months from now, we'll have an option to also have FibreChannel drives. We don't put Slammers in front of other people's storage."

"I think the administrative benefit [of providing NAS and SAN concurrently]," added Farley, "may be that you can have a single resource, and you can manage that single resource from a single interface, [so] it's a little less complicated, perhaps, than having discrete block and discrete file." In a non-virtualized NAS system, data is accessed using network addresses, as discrete files; in non-virtualized SANs, data throughput takes place using the blocks familiar to systems builders. "As an administrator of a storage environment, as you trend toward growth in either file or block, you've got a single interface with the Pillar product to allocate that storage effectively, a single interface to do both."

Farley referred to a report written some years ago by Storage Networking Industry Association program director Michael Peterson, which stated that administrative costs of a storage network were generally seven times the cost of the hardware itself. Given the same parameters, Farley said, the admin costs are more like 15 to 20 times the hardware costs. Even though Axiom promises to reduce storage device costs - even with no support of existing or legacy storage - the challenge before Pillar Data Systems is to keep costs down for customers.

"I really do think this product has a chance of providing excellent quality of service levels, which is something a lot of people want," said Farley. "A lot of people want tiered storage, and they don't know how to go about getting it or how to implement it. It's possible that [Axiom], with the combination of NAS and SAN, plus the QoS [proposition], will give people a single management interface to really get what they want out of storage." But in the face of overwhelming competition from EMC, among others, added Farley, "if they [Pillar] don't get there, they're not going to survive."