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Steptoe storage vendors cash in on junk platters

Why tech that could extend disk life was rejected

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Comment Disks break - everyone knows that. Yet storage array vendors have rejected a technology that would get around this and save their customers pots of money.

This resulted in Seagate writing off millions of dollars, and customers continuing to spend money buying products from storage vendors that could have been much more reliable.

Spinning disks with read/write heads darting in and out across the platter surfaces suffer mechanical vibration and break. The data on them becomes lost and has to be regenerated through RAID schemes with the failed drive being replaced. Sealed canisters of drives allow individual drives to fail in place, with the canister controller logic recovering from the drive failure such that no data is lost and no engineer service visit is required.

Xiotech, one of only two companies (the other being Atrato) that provide sealed canister arrays, offers a remarkable five-year warranty on its Emprise product using its ISE (Intelligent Storage Element) technology, something no other mainstream storage vendor does.

Seagate, HP, IBM and start-up Sherwood Information Systems (which became Atrato) have each looked at the sealed storage canister idea. What happened? The story of how the technology was invented, developed and then rejected, by suppliers who say they listen to their customers, illustrates how business models reject disruptive technology.

Six years ago IBM Almaden was developing its IceCube technology, a three-dimensional storage brick, the IceCube or Collective Intelligent Brick, containing disk drives and intelligence. Each brick contains extra capacity so that disks can fail in place and no one need come and fix the system.

IBM thought that a brick could run for four years with a three per cent component failure rate. Bricks communicated to other bricks through cable-less capacitative coupling, and such technology would mean very much lower service costs. But here in 2009, no IceCube products have been announced by IBM.

In 2007 IBM was reportedly spinning off the IceCube technology into Seval Systems, a separate company. It did not want, it seems, to use the technology iteself. Seval Systems has since disappeared, as has the technology. Eric Wendel, the founder of Atrato, then Sherwood Information Systems, reckons there were "untold millions spent in development but never monetised" by IBM with IceCube.

In 2006 HP had its Federated Array of Bricks (FAB) project. These bricks would be composed of disk drives, a controller and communications cards and would federate themselves to provide storage volumes to users. A FAB product would offer the reliability and performance of enterprise-class disk arrays, at a fraction of the cost and with better scalability. Yet there are no HP storage products using this technology today.

So two existing mainstream storage array suppliers looked at sealed canister technology and rejected it. What happened with similar projects inside the world's biggest disk drive manufacturer and at the start-up?

Seagate's activities in the sealed canister area began with an ACORNS project before 2003. That year it started up its Advanced Storage Architecture group by recruiting a bunch of people from Compaq, including the then chief technology officer (CTO) for StorageWorks, Steve Sicola, and Dr Ellen Lary, business-critical storage VP. Compaq had inherited these people when it bought DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation). In effect Seagate bought a Sicola-led technology development group, and it started work at its Colorado Springs base on the ISE technology.

That same year, Eric Wendel recruited Dan McCormick and Jonathan Hall, and they started up Sherwood Information Services in Minnesota to develop a SAID (Self Maintaining Array of Identical Disks) disk drive array technology product. This built on work Wendel had already done to find out how to pack commodity SATA 2.5-inch laptop drives close together and produce an inexpensive but very reliable storage array for customers needing to access and store massive amounts of data. The company was renamed Atrato in 2004.

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