Can you bet your business on SATA?

Maybe you can -- depending on where you store your data now

See correction below

If you didn't hear yet about the AX100, the new entry-level EMC storage array for small to midsize businesses, you either were on a mission to another galaxy or you actually have an interesting life outside of work.

If you're one of the lucky two people in those categories, I present a short recap. This new Clariion model offers one or two processors and either a 2U enclosure with battery-backed cache or a 3U box with uninterruptible power supply.

Do not expect to see FC (Fibre Channel) drives on the AX100, because EMC and its partners, including Dell, offer only 160GB or 250GB SATA (serial ATA) drives -- at least for the moment. Expect a total capacity for each enclosure varying from one-half TB to 3TB, depending on the number of drives mounted (up to 12) and their capacity.

How do you connect the AX100 to a host? FC, of course, either by establishing a direct connection to one of the supported Emulex or QLogic HBAs, or by creating a small SAN with entry-level 3250 Brocade switches, which I mentioned in an April column.

Wondering which OSes these EMC arrays support? Linux, NetWare, and Windows, of course. You may remember hearing last year that HP announced the StorageWorks MSA1000, the first micro-SANsolution for the masses offered by one of the large storage vendors.

My intention here is not to stress that HP beat EMC and its partners to the market, but rather to point out one of many major differences between the two arrays: SATA drives for the AX100 versus SCSI drives for the MSA1000.

Why is this important? Because common wisdom suggests that there is a significant performance and reliability gap between the two technologies. In fact, most disk vendors suggest using FC or SCSI drives for mission-critical applications, and using SATA for less demanding tasks such as storing reference data and backup copies.

The only dissenting voice in that context is Western Digital, but remember that the WD Raptor, Western Digital's proposed alternative for enterprise applications, is a unique, specially engineered line of drives that spins at 10K RPM, offering better performance and a slightly more expensive sticker pricethan other SATA lines. WD Raptor's better performance and reliability specs bring the drives closer to SCSI and FC.

Large vendors have so far played by the prevailing wisdom, relegating SATA drives to secondary, non-business-critical roles. With the AX100, EMC and Dell seem to take distance from that common wisdom, offering their customers a SATA-based solution as primary repository for their business data.

Time will tell if entry-level customers will be comfortable putting their critical applications on arrays based on SATA drives, but until now Dell and EMC seem to be the only major vendors to take that route. For example, Engenio Information Technologies, a new company previously known as LSI Logic's Storage Systems, recently announced a new SATA storage array based on their 2822 controller.

The 2822 controller can host both FC and SATA drives, giving customers the flexibility to easily mix the two technologies according to business requirements. Engenio doesn't sell directly to the public, so new solutions based on the 2822 will reach the market branded by other major storage vendors. 

However, 2822-hosted SATA drives will maintain their intended ancillary role according to Steve Gardner, director of product marketing for Engenio. "SATA performance is perhaps one quarter of SCSI [performance]," he suggests. And he adds that, should a drive fail when storing primary data on SATA, customers could experience long volume-rebuild times. 

"Customers get what they pay for," is Gartner's final comment. I couldn't agree more. But it's undeniable that the AX100 gives customers a new option to move business data away from server-attached storage. Perhaps that additional choice is what many SMB customers have been waiting for to finally kiss attached storage goodbye.


In this column, we should have compared SATA drives for the AX100 versus SCSI drives for the MSA1000. The sentence has been corrected.