3PAR puts more storage efficiency smarts into chip

3PAR's new servers are designed to reduce the amount of effort required to manage storage in datacenter environments

Storage server vendor 3PAR has built a key function for storage efficiency into a specialized chip, offloading that job from the main processors in a pair of server models it introduced on Tuesday.

The company's storage servers, originally introduced in 2002, are purpose-built for datacenters using virtualization and designed to reduce the amount of effort required to manage storage in those environments. This includes allocation of storage capacity for particular applications, said Craig Nunes, vice president of marketing at 3PAR.

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3PAR's storage servers are designed to save both storage space and IT managers' time by automatically allocating capacity across a disk array. They can either set aside a certain amount of storage for each application, as defined by the administrator, or allocate just the amount of space the application really needs.

The 3PAR Gen3 ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) can handle either task, as well as the migration between them. The chip is built into the company's new InServ T400 and T800 Storage Servers and is the first chip that can make that shift, according to 3PAR. Previously, the company's gear has done so with software. Handling such tasks in hardware typically makes them run faster.

However, customers will have to wait until the next version of the 3PAR InForm Operating System to tap into the ASIC's new capability, Nunes said. He declined to say when the new software would be available.

Like 3PAR's last ASIC, the new chip also includes 3PAR Fast RAID 5, a system for distributing data across multiple drives so it remains available in case of a failure. RAID 5 requires less overall space than RAID 1, which uses two complete copies of the data, but it runs more slowly. 3PAR's Fast RAID 5 speeds that up by putting it in hardware, Nunes said.

The T400 and T800 servers each are made up of several controllers, or blades, that communicate via a backplane in the server. The T400 can have between two and four controllers and the T800 can have as many as eight, Nunes said. In addition to the servers, 3PAR sells the disk arrays that go with them. The company builds its systems mostly from third-party components but designed the ASIC itself over the course of two or three years, he said.

3PAR's servers and storage arrays have helped Memphis financial services company Morgan Keegan make more efficient use of its storage capacity, according to Parker Mabry, vice president and manager of network systems engineering. His company uses two S400 servers, an earlier 3PAR product. With Morgan Keegan's previous storage systems, dividing up one array to serve two major applications such as Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server would have been difficult and made the drives work too hard, Mabry said. The S400s divide every drive in the array into units of 250MB that can be pooled and virtualized, which provides much more flexibility, he said.

Alibris, an online store for books and other media, changed its storage system to 3PAR in 2006, said CTO Michael Shaffer. The company has an IT staff of just four and was able to shift one member to new tasks from what was almost a full-time job managing storage, he said. Shaffer's team still assigns a certain amount of storage to each application, and 3PAR storage servers automatically distribute it across multiple disks, which allows for fast reading and writing of data, he said. Shaffer doesn't let the storage servers set the amount of capacity yet, but with the new chip, he probably could do so quickly and easily, he said. Then he could switch back if he didn't like it.

"Having the ability to change one's mind is a rare ability," Shaffer said.

The InServ T800 Storage server is priced starting at $175,000 for a base configuration with two controllers and 16 146GB drives. The T400 is priced from $130,000.

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