Building a SATA bridge

Sierra Logic's new chip aims to span the FC-SATA gap

There are exceptions, but it seems to be an established rule that startups will come up with the most innovative and daring solutions to various IT problems.

I was reminded of that last week during a conversation with two of the co-founders of Sierra Logic, an emerging company that is developing technologies to make SATA drives more suitable for enterprise storage.

"We want to bring the enterprise [storage] to SATA" says Bryan Cowger, co-founder of Sierra Logic and vice president of sales and marketing.

The company's first product, the SR1216 (SR stands for storage router) is a chip that sits between SATA drives and a RAID controller, essentially masking their differences and simulating the behavior of FC (Fibre Channel) drives.

Why is that important? Cost, obviously. "If you look at the bill of material for storage systems, something like 80 percent of the cost is disk drives," Cowger says. He adds that by using the SR1216, storage vendors can cut a large part of the cost and replace those expensive FC drives with high-capacity SATA or parallel ATA drives.

According to Cowger, Sierra Logic's chip also makes those SATA drives more dependable, bringing about features such as full path redundancy, advanced data protection, and scalable routing that are normally only possible when using more expensive devices. 

"With the ST1216 chip, SATA drives gain the same data integrity and availability of FC drives," Cowger explains. He suggests that customers can also design redundant solutions mounting duplicate chips and dual controllers on each array to ensure automatic fail-over in case of malfunction.

The Sierra Logic chip has already grabbed the attention of several large vendors, but out of respect for their confidentiality agreements, I can only mention a couple: Dot Hill, a supplier of Sun Microsystems, and Xyratex.

Dot Hill/Sun deployed the chip in the Sun StorEdge 3511 array; Xyratex included the technology in its 4200 SATA JBOD (just a bunch of disks) box.

Other vendors will probably follow shortly, because at the moment there seem to be no viable alternatives to Sierra Logic's chip.

"Our chip is the only integrated solution that accomplishes the FC to serial ATA emulation," Cowger says proudly. And he adds that other approaches to FC-SATA use firmware to link multiple nonintegrated components, which severely penalizes cost, performance, and reliability.

The estimated target market for FC-SATA arrays is huge and covers predictable areas such as reference data, disk-based backups and, for entry-level customers, primary storage. However their deployment shouldn't make any significant dent in the traditional FC installed base. 

"These are emerging applications that exist just due to the cost point of [serial] ATA storage capacity," says Bob Whitson, co-founder, president, and CEO of Sierra Logic.

Whitson notes that most Sierra Logic customers regard the FC-SATA phenomenon as an opportunity to enlarge their installed base beyond traditional FC deployments.

I can't resist asking what Sierra Logic's best-case market-penetration scenario is, and Whitson doesn't shy away from that question. "I am a believer in the 20/80 ratio," he says, meaning that FC-SATA storage could cover as much as 80 percent, leaving 20 percent of the new extended market to pure FC.

Time will tell how accurate Whitson's prediction is, but let me venture forth with one of my own: Most of us will probably never buy directly from it, but we’ll hear from Sierra Logic again soon.

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