BlueArc boosts NAS-SAN architecture

Posted on January 01, 2002

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Early users applaud performance

BY LISA COLEMAN

Relative newcomer BlueArc is adding new features and functionality via silicon updates to its architecture over the next two quarters.

In mid-2001, BlueArc introduced its Si7500-an enterprise-class storage system with a network-attached storage (NAS) front-end and a Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN) back-end scalable to 200TB. The system uses field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and attached memory to perform functions traditionally handled in software.

The silicon updates will increase performance but will also enable the Si7500 to serve data directly to end users via their Web browsers using FTP for file downloads and HTTP for access to Web pages and content. No other servers are required between end users and the Si7500. BlueArc is also adding services to make its system a "good fit for storage service providers and ISPs, which need many different customers to securely access the same storage," explains Geoff Barrall, BlueArc founder and CTO.

The Si7500's high performance is the reason that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) decided to buy five Si7500s for its Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), which provides computational capability to the US's nuclear stockpile stewardship program. LLNL, along with Los Alamos and Sandia National laboratories, monitors the nuclear weapon stockpile for safety and reliability. The ASCI program simulates nuclear warhead explosions. The simulations require "capacity computing" with high-performance, scalable machines for high-end calculations.

The ASCI program has been deploying huge platforms like IBM's 12.3 trillion floating point operations per second (Tflops) system and Compaq's Q Machine. The program uses Intel Pentium 4 processors and a Linux clustering strategy.

"One of the things we have to provide to our users on the clusters is a global file system," says Mark Seager, assistant department head for terascale systems at LLNL. "Although you can get proprietary systems from IBM and Compaq, so far there's no global parallel file system for Linux. So we chose BlueArc systems to serve as a replacement for that functionality while we develop it."

Also, BlueArc provided the reliability and performance that LLNL needed, according to Seager. Four of the five BlueArc systems at LLNL have a combined storage capacity of 7TB and will be used as the central part of two Linux clusters with a total of 216 nodes and 232 Pentium 4 processors. The fifth Si7500 includes 4TB of storage to support LLNL's high-performance NFS services, specifically its /nfs/tmp directories.

LLNL tested BlueArc's systems against Network Appliance's F880c filer. The tests showed that BlueArc performed three to six times faster than the F880c, according to Seager. LLNL did not test BlueArc against EMC disk arrays.

The lab demonstrated 100MBps write performance and up to 100MBps read performance when it first installed the Si7500s. While Seager is impressed by the "very reliable, very high performance, it's not as feature-rich in terms of other characteristics. But we've seen the development road map, and we anticipate that they will be competitive in terms of feature sets with Network Appliance in the next six months or so," he says.

Another feature that LLNL was looking for but did not find initially on the Si7500 was a file system bigger than 2TB. "We had to have multiple subnet routing immediately. That was a showstopper for us," explains Seager. "They didn't have it in their product, but they put it in at our request."

Seager says that BlueArc's performance advantage over competitors is the result of implementing TCP/IP, NFS, and file-system processing on FPGAs. "They basically designed hardware to the algorithms, which gives you a tremendous performance boost."

Another BlueArc proponent is Cinesite, a digital motion imaging house that recently installed an Si7500 after suffering from data management and movement problems with its direct-attached storage (DAS) and SAN configurations.

Cinesite provides visual effects for movies, digitally masters and restores films, pre-masters DVDs, and also provides film archiving. Typical feature-length, 121-minute movies contain about 2.2TB of data if all the frames are digitized. Special effects are added into a movie, frame by frame, and fast data movement is essential, according to Daniel S. Rosen, Cinesite's CTO.

Rosen inherited DAS and a SAN when he first arrived at Cinesite in April 2000. The digital effects wizards would "copy all their frames to local disk and operate on them there, and then copy them back to wherever the central storage was," explains Rosen. "Accessing the frames on a NAS unit or some other workstation was too slow-they couldn't work fast enough," he says. Now, the digital effects can be made directly on the Si7500 without copying each movie frame onto an individual's local disk.

"I was never impressed with SAN technology," says Rosen. "It jumped to the forefront because it was Fibre Channel-based and very fast, but it was extremely expensive on a per-station basis, and there was no standardization among SAN vendors." He further explains that the original SAN was never configured properly and its performance was "horrible."

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