Intel reinvests in networked storage

Posted on July 01, 2006

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By Kevin Komiega

Intel’s presence in the data storage industry has always been an enigma. The chipmaker has dabbled in the development of storage technologies here and there with an eye toward improving its own processors, but the company has often been content to sit on the sidelines while the storage vendors play the game. That is, until now.

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The silicon giant’s storage strategy has started to gel and, as evidenced by a rash of recent product and partnership announcements and rumors of more on the horizon, it is quickly becoming clear that Intel has decided to use its technology expertise and channel reach to insert itself into the entry-level storage market in a substantial way.

Intel’s modus operandi over the past six or seven years has been to focus on building small components of storage systems. Just before the dot.com gold rush came to a screeching halt, the company made news with several storage “building blocks” and a new set of processors specifically designed for networked storage applications.

In late 2001, Intel announced a family of fully programmable network processors capable of processing data at speeds exceeding 10Gbps. The programmable chips were slated for use by the OEM community with various storage and networking devices.

Then, in 2002, Intel let loose another family of chips, this time based on its XScale architecture, for applications extending from the home and office to the data center. Intel also unveiled an integrated I/O processor aimed at reducing the cost and complexity of designing networked storage devices. As part of the XScale family, the Intel IOP321 I/O processor made its debut and enabled servers and storage devices to transfer data faster within systems and improved overall system performance. Intel also released the IQ80321 development kit, which included resources for the development of networked storage devices using the IOP321 I/O processor.

On the heels of the XScale launch, Intel dipped its toe into the iSCSI pool by unveiling a Gigabit Ethernet adapter optimized for iSCSI-the PRO/1000 T IP Storage Adapter. The adapter was designed to help move block storage data over copper-based Ethernet networks.

A few months later Intel decided to roll out a slew of components in the hopes of driving development of industry standard specifications, such as iSCSI, PCI Express, and Serial ATA (SATA). The company simultaneously launched a SATA controller, four new RAID controllers, another iSCSI adapter, a TCP/IP offload engine for accelerating IP storage traffic, and an ultra-low-voltage Celeron processor for entry-level NAS systems.

That’s when the music stopped. Intel bombarded the industry with the aforementioned products to lay the groundwork for what seemed to be a burgeoning storage strategy. The company worked the storage trade shows and conferences and demonstrated its wares with partners such as Network Appliance and extolled the virtues of IP SANs. But in the two years that followed, Intel retreated to its bread and butter-building silicon.

A smattering of storage-related news centering on chips, transceivers, and PCI-X technology trickled out of Intel in 2003 and 2004. During this two-year span, Intel unveiled the TXN18107 10Gbps Multimode Optical Transceiver, the 41210 Serial to Parallel PCI Bridge, and its next I/O storage processor, code-named Dobson, which integrated PCI Express and Intel XScale technologies to make high-performance RAID on motherboard (ROMB) an integral feature of the Lindenhurst server chipset, and provided data protection for SCSI, SATA, and Fibre Channel disk arrays. Host bus adapter (HBA) maker Emulex, for example, used the TXN31011 Optical Transceiver in some of its designs.

Intel also debuted a pair of optical transceivers aimed at doubling the performance of Fibre Channel storage systems with support for the 4Gbps Fibre Channel specification. But it wasn’t until late last year that Intel began to re-emerge in a significant way.

It was then that Intel got serious about networked storage and revamped its internal structure to boost its presence in the storage industry, specifically the entry-level NAS and SAN markets.

“Eighteen months ago, Intel formally embraced a platform focus. While we always looked at the storage systems our silicon went into holistically, it was never substantiated from a corporate structure perspective,” says Seth Bobroff, marketing program director for Intel’s Storage Group. “We recognized the importance of storage for the company as a growth vector.”

Intel brought together all of its bits and pieces to focus on building standards-based storage platforms. Last October, the company got back into the storage platform business with the release of the Intel Storage System SSR212MA, a hardware and software offering for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that lets users build a full-featured IP SAN as a low-cost complement or alternative to Fibre Channel SANs.

The SSR212MA contains a single Intel Xeon processor and support for up to 12 SATA hard drives and iSCSI connectivity. The box also comes with a suite of software tools to manage storage resources from a central console.

The SSR121MA announcement paved the way for more standards-based, off-the-shelf hardware for SMB customers. Intel recently unveiled the Entry Storage System SS4000-E for small business. The SS4000 NAS array is based on the Intel XScale 80219 processor, supports up to 2TB of capacity with four SATA drives, and features IP connectivity. Pricing starts at $700 for an entry-level configuration.

Intel provided more evidence of its intentions in the SMB storage space earlier this year when it teamed up with Dell, EMC, and LSI Logic to form the Storage Bridge Bay (SBB) Working Group, a non-profit collaborative created to “drive standardization” of entry-level external storage devices. The SBB group hopes to speed the delivery of emerging storage technologies, such as iSCSI, Serial Attached SCSI (SAS), and virtual tape libraries (VTLs).

Several other storage industry players have joined the SBB, including Adap-tec, AMCC, Aristos Logic, Astute Networks, Dot Hill, Neterion, Rasilient Systems, Seagate, and Xyratex. The group will focus on developing and distributing specifications for standardizing external disk subsystem technologies.

The most recent storage move by Intel, and perhaps its biggest to date, was the April announcement of a new OEM and technology partnership with EMC. The pair joined forces to surprise the industry with the deal, under which Intel will sell a line of entry-level storage arrays based on EMC’s recently launched series of Clariion AX150 storage systems.

As part of the multi-year deal, Intel will market and sell a version of the AX150, called the Intel SSR212PP Storage System, to its huge roster of more than 180,000 resellers and distributors worldwide. The Intel storage array will be exactly like the AX150 with the exception of exterior cosmetic changes that will allow Intel resellers to put their own logo on the box.

EMC inked the deal based, in part, on the strength of Intel’s channel partner network in the Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, and South America regions. “More than half of Intel’s resellers are outside of the US. EMC knows how to reach US resellers. This is about emerging markets overseas,” says Hans Geyer, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Storage Group.

“We are seeing a renewed interest from Intel in the storage business as evidenced by their relationship with EMC,” says Brian Babineau, a storage analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. “What you’ve seen in the past from Intel is a small component approach to storage to take advantage of the end-user storage market, which is a reasonable business for a chip supplier. But I think they decided that if they were going to be in the storage business at all they were going to have to put their whole foot in the water.”

Babineau does not believe Intel’s recent storage blitz isn’t just about developing better storage processors; he thinks the company has been enticed by the explosive growth of networked storage for SMBs.

“One of the clear benefits for Intel in going after this market is building stronger relationships with the EMCs and Dells of the world so they can better understand their partners’ R&D requirements. That translates into better chip design,” says Babineau, “but they didn’t do this to develop a better chip for [EMC’s] Clariion.”

Babineau says building better storage processors is important to Intel, but the market for application-specific chips pales in comparison to the SMB external storage market.

“Fifty-million-dollar markets do nothing for Intel. They need to be in $500 million markets to benefit. Now they’re jumping into the pool,” says Babineau.

Babineau also points out that the timing for Intel’s storage push is no coincidence. “The timing is interesting because of the international expansion of storage. Intel is really well known overseas where they brought PCs and servers, and now they will bring entry-level storage,” he says.

Intel’s Bobroff says another reason for the redoubling of Intel’s storage business was the needs of its channel customers. “It’s no mystery that Intel sells white box servers and PC clients in the channel. Our resellers around the world were looking to sell more complete solutions, and storage is a very hot segment right now,” he explains.

He added that a focus on the sub-$20,000 entry-level market was any easy choice for Intel’s storage attack. “It’s the largest segment of the storage market in terms of volume,” says Bobroff.

Intel is also reportedly working on a deal with virtualization software specialist FalconStor Software on the development of a series of new appliances ranging in functionality from virtual tape emulation for disk-based backup, continuous data protection (CDP), and a new iSCSI box.

Intel officials, however, declined to comment on the company’s future plans in the storage market other than to say the company is “interested” in a number of technologies.

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