SNW Spring: Talking 'bout a revolution -- or two

New SAS switches and AMD-based NAS are ready to give competitors a run for their money

This year's spring edition of SNW will be about to close -- or will have already closed -- its doors by the time you read this column, but it's still steaming full speed ahead while I write.

I'll save the postmortem wrap-up for next week, but my marine metaphor reminds me that not everything happens on the show floor here at SNW -- and I'm not talking about executives chatting it up during a round of golf.

Instead, Bell Microproducts took to the sea and chose a real vessel moored in the beautiful San Diego Bay -- instead of an SNW booth -- to demo its new Hammer line of entry-level storage devices. Renamed the "SS Zetera" -- appropriate because the devices are based on Zetera's Z-SAN technology -- for the show's duration, the yacht is certainly one of the most scenic demo spaces I've ever seen at an SNW show.

Back on land, I was enthralled by two revolutionary new products, starting with the SAS (serial attached SCSI) switch that LSI Logic announced last week.

The newborn switch connects hosts and storage devices using the SAS protocol exclusively, creating an interesting alternative to using FC (Fibre Channel) for short-range storage networks.

SAS switches are a perfect complement to all the other novelties recently brought under this technology's umbrella, including HBAs (host bus adapters), RAID controllers, and disk drives. Because of their compatibility with SAS, I'll also add SATA (serial ATA) devices to that bunch.

These all-SAS storage networks promise to be more efficient -- no adapters to do protocol conversions -- and less expensive than hybrid systems that combine FC connectivity with SAS and SATA drives. Just imagine: You could build storage networks where data flows from hosts to disk drives without ever leaving the ubiquitous SAS protocol.

Will other vendors follow LSI Logic down the SAS switching path? It's quite possible, because the technology has a well-defined road map and is mounting considerable momentum.

Speaking of momentum, Intel processors may have recently been admitted into the once-denied domain of Apple, but its rivalry with AMD is finding new battlefields in storage devices.

Here's why: You may have never heard of Agami, but this startup began shipping NAS appliances based on AMD CPUs last year. Moreover, Agami has deep roots in storage.

"We bought the software stack from a company called Zambeel that went out of business a few years ago, and that became the genesis of what Agami is today," says John Wernke, vice president of marketing at Agami. "We took that software stack that was built for a high-end HPC solution and figured out how to run it on commodity hardware."

And as for that AMD connection, "David Stiles, our vice president of engineering, is basically the father of the Opteron chip set," Wernke explains. "He was at a company called NexGen that was then bought by AMD."

Last month, Agami -- if you're reading this aloud, the emphasis is on the second a -- announced the AIS 6000, a new line of NAS appliances promising capacity of as much as 19TB in a 5U chassis and throughput of as fast as 1GBps, well above the rates of its competition.

"Our box comes [complete] with CIFS, NFS, NDMP, snapshots, disk quotas, and is very easy to use and implement," Wernke says. "File System Replication is the only optional component."

That's good to hear, but what gives Agami devices that incredible performance? As far as I know, other nonclustered NAS appliances max out at about 350MBps.

"All of our boxes come with a Quad [AMD] Opteron," Wernke says. "It's a standard motherboard, but we don't use HyperTransport only to communicate between CPUs and memory; we have expanded it out to disk controllers and to network controllers."

You can learn more than you'll ever need to know about HyperTransport here, but to quote Wernke: "It's a point-to-point communication, 2.4GB in a single direction, 4.8GBps total throughput."

"Our design allows us to read in parallel from all 48 disk drives, move that very quickly across the CPUs, and push it out to 20 NIC ports," adds Wernke, referencing a fully configured AIS 6000.

The speedy AIS 6000 starts at $63,000 for a 12TB configuration. But the lower-end AIS 3000 model is no slowpoke, with a promised throughput of 500MBps, and you can get an expandable AIS3000 with 4TB capacity for just $25,000.  

Has Agami hit the NAS jackpot by adopting AMD's processors instead of Intel's? I'll leave that thought hanging, because more juicy storage tidbits are awaiting me at the show.

Join me on The Storage Network blog with questions or comments.

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