Thin servers combine with tape libraries, RAID

Thin servers combine with tape libraries, RAID

By Zachary Shess

With thin servers boasting low cost and ease-of-installation benefits, this relatively new technology is now bringing network-attached capability and flexibility to established direct-attached storage devices. For example, thin-server vendor Creative Design Solutions (CDS) recently signed an OEM agreement with ATL Products, marking the first time that thin-server technology will be embedded into tape libraries.

ATL will incorporate CDS` Plug & Stor 300 thin server into its DLT libraries, which the company claims will provide tape library users with the performance and cost benefits of RAID subsystems and network-attached printers. The target market is small to midsize UNIX and Windows NT LAN environments.

According to Frank Berry, director of business development at ATL, these environments often do not have the luxury of sophisticated IT staffs. Berry claims the enhanced tape libraries offer plug-and-play functionality and that the libraries can easily be added to a network without having to take down the LAN.

Embedding thin server "controllers" into tape libraries can potentially provide cost savings while offering high throughput. ATL claims their DLT7000 libraries provide 10MBps burst transfer rates with 2:1 compression.

"Price will be similar to what you would pay for a tape library and a disk bay," says Berry. "When you look at the price of buying 50GB to 100GB of disk, the cost of thin servers will be negligible."

A more noticeable cost savings may come from reduced storage management costs. "Right now, tape libraries represent a relatively complex integration project for administrators. They have to figure out the server, the backup software, the network and tape drive technology," Berry adds.

James Staten, a storage analyst at Dataquest, a market research firm in San Jose, CA, says companies must figure out how to get backup software to work with network-attached storage (NAS) devices before the solution will truly work.

"I see two hang-ups. One, where do you want your backup software to run? If you want it to run on an NT network where it talks to a tape drive somewhere on the network, then you need to figure out a way to get the tape drive to work as if it`s local to the server. That`s the only way backup software works right now," says Staten. "The second problem is, if you want the backup software on the NAS engine, you have to port the software."

Once these factors are ironed out, Staten believes embedding intelligent thin servers into tape libraries will facilitate easier backup. "Often, tape libraries are sitting next to the server and the server gets backed up, but the clients don`t. There`s so much network traffic in backup, you don`t want to do that."

"The advantage of thin servers is you can use the intelligence to do automated backup. So, the difference from the previous model is that you may still have your backup software running on an NT server, but it can prompt the device out on the network and just give it commands and it does a backup," says Staten.

ATL expects to ship DLT libraries with embedded thin servers in September. Within 12 to 18 months, the company expects all of their tape libraries to include the technology.

Thin servers + RAID

RAID vendor nStor has already incorporated CDS` Plug & Stor 300 thin server into its CR8e and CR8j arrays in an effort to provide a scalable RAID array at a lower price point. "Scalability certainly helps because what is going to happen in the network attached storage market is typical of what has already occurred in other markets: You buy a product to serve your needs today, and then I/O demands quickly increase and you need to scale up your engine to take care of those demands," says Steve Paulhus, director of marketing at nStor.

Embedded thin servers also satisfy the growing requirement of cross-platform connectivity for workgroup environments. Since the CDS server is operating system-independent, for example, the RAID device can be plugged into a network hub and all clients are able to recognize it. Paulhus says that cross-platform connectivity saves money for companies who no longer have to purchase NT and UNIX servers. "This is another step toward full acceptance of storage area networks," says Paulhus.

nStor plans to ship its CR8e and CR8j arrays with embedded thin servers this month, but one beta user--OC Inc., in Orlando, FL--is already realizing the benefits. OC creates multimedia training and interactive courseware.

Robb Stacy, OC`s IS supervisor, believes embedded network-attached thin servers are appealing due to potential cost savings. While he finds the exact savings difficult to quantify, he thinks the concept could be useful in facilitating large file transfers by optimizing bandwidth.

"If we can have 15 to 25 people accessing four different machines instead of more than 100 accessing one server, that`s taking the load off my server and I have a smoother network," says Stacy. "Before, we were running a 100Mbps hub into one segment and everyone was sharing that bandwidth."

While acknowledging that embedding thin-server technology into tape libraries and RAID arrays may not be a revolutionary breakthrough, Dataquest`s Staten sees a solid market for users that need to offload overworked servers and reap the benefits of improved throughput, easier storage installation, and cost-effective storage resource management.

"What`s interesting is that most of the time users are not asking for NAS," says Staten. "They`re asking for greater performance, reliability and scalability. Thin servers allow them to address those concerns in a cost-effective way."

For more information on network-attached storage, see the Analysts View in this issue.

This article was originally published on July 01, 1998