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HP tries to right storage wrongs with smart cells

The StorageWorks Grid is a'comin

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HP's storage business has taken a beating of late, but it looks like the company is laying a solid foundation for future products courtesy of something called "smart cell" technology.

The basic concept of a smart cell is pretty simple. You take some processors, disks, networking components and software and wrap them all together just like most storage boxes. HP's approach, however, differs from some of its rivals in that the smart cells will be based almost entirely on commodity parts and be smaller that typical "monolithic" storage systems in SANs (storage area networks). The idea is to give customers a type of basic storage unit that can be configured and then even reconfigured on-the-fly to run a host of different tasks from archiving and file-serving to back-up and disaster recovery.

"You put these smart cells together to get the size and scale you want," said Simon Towers, a technical director at HP. "You buy a common infrastructure and then load on the different types of services you want in as large or small amounts as you want."

A number of press reports circulated this week doing hardcore public relations work for HP, touting both the smart cell technology and the larger StorageWorks Grid "vision" it fits into. The stories, however, did little to explain how the technology worked or even what a smart cell is. HP is probably to blame for some of this, as it is being pretty vague about its storage plans.

At the moment, HP is responding to a disastrous third quarter in which its storage business was punished. Three executives were fired to make up for widespread failings at HP. Analysts and rivals have charged that HP has fallen behind competitors in a number of storage areas - most notably with refreshes to its product line. With all of this in mind, HP this week rolled out the StorageWorks Grid idea to prove that it's thinking ahead and busy inventing.

To be fair, HP's Towers is not even almost suggesting that customers can go out now and buy a self-healing, self-managing, self-tuning storage grid. And thank god he's not because you can't - no matter what the reporters tell you.

"What's being described is the vision," he said. "This is the direction we are heading towards."

The first, concrete piece of this vision to arrive is the StorageWorks RISS system. Up to this point, HP had sold a 4TB of version of the box, which is aimed at the content archiving space. Now it will also sell a 1TB version based on the smart cell concept. The system ships with sophisticated content-indexing software that HP acquired last year in its buy of Persist. The smaller box is aimed at archiving e-mail and is similar to what EMC offers with the Centerra system.

"EMC certainly had a leap in that they were first to market," Towers said. "But customers need a way of searching and indexing their files and in that regard EMC has nothing, so we kind of enjoy a second mover advantage."

Customers can plug in new RISS systems as need be, and the boxes should basically configure themselves. This is the StorageWorks Grid and smart cell technology in action, although it's clearly a rough version of where HP hopes to take the technology.

Another grid-like box highlighted by HP is the StorageWorks Scalable File Share (SFS), which uses HP's distributed file system based on the Lustre open source protocol. The box makes it possible to distribute files in parallel across groups of ProLiant servers and StorageWorks systems. This is more similar to the Storage Tank idea put forth by IBM where files can be accessed from any box - regardless of what vendor made it or what OS it runs. The file system does the dirty work by linking the disparate hardware - once again building on the grid idea.

Along with these box, HP this week took care of the old, faithful gear shipping a new StorageWorks XP12000, which is based on Hitachi's latest, high-end Lighting kit.

Moving forward, HP expects to release systems that make true use of the smart cell concept.

"The Grid is made up of commodity “smart cells” which contain front end processors, cache (optional), disk and other storage devices such as tape," wrote the Enterprise Strategy Group in a recent report. "The cells can be loaded with different personalities, becoming NAS file systems, block based systems, object oriented archival systems, or perhaps backup targets. HP intends to provide up to 40 different services, and third party vendors will be able to port applications to the storage cells. The true power of this Grid architecture is that each cell is aware of the other and can collaborate in order to distribute loads, increase overall performance through parallel processing and even cache I/Os meant for another “personality."

Software, of course, controls the personality of each cell. HP will ship cells of different sizes for different workloads, but the idea of cheap underlying hardware applies in each case. Be it Fibre Channel or IP, HP wants to provide low-cost kit and have the software do most of the tough stuff. Eventually, an OpenView product will be used to manage the whole shebang.

One day, customers should be able to chuck in a new back-up box and have it start churning away with little administration. That, however, is fanciful talk, friends, and still years away.

With any luck, HP knows exactly what it means by StorageWorks Grid and smart cell technology and is simply holding out on revealing the fine details for the moment. The company's plan certainly fits in with its overall marketing message of building "modular" hardware pieces that can be purchased bit by bit as demand dictates. Each hardware unit talks to all the rest regardless of OS, middleware or feisty API. This is a change from some vendors that try to pack as much as possible into a single system and then charge you for the secret sauce needed to manage it all.

Whether or not HP is alone in its vision and can beat rivals to the punch remains to be seen, as it's talking years rather than months for the entire StorageWorks grid and smart cell pairing to arrive. ®

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