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September 21, 2011

DDN Revs Up Storage Fusion Offering, Fills Out Exec Team

Michael Feldman

DataDirect Networks (DDN) has announced the sequel to its original SFA10000 product. The SFA10K-X unveiled on Tuesday is the company’s first major upgrade to its Storage Fusion Architecture product line originally launched in June 2009.

The new SFA10K-X (the X stands for extreme) is basically the same appliance as the SFA10000, providing lots of IOPS, capacity and bandwidth for petascale storage. But the 10K-X delivers about 25 percent more performance than its predecessor — up to 15GB/sec of read-write bandwidth and 840,000 IOPS.

That was accomplished mainly with better software that is able to use the drives more efficiently. The company also moved the backend infrastructure to fully 6 Gbps SAS to ensure performance is maintained for drive rebuilds, data protection, and to feed high-speed SSDs. A single storage array couplet is equipped with twenty 6 Gbps by 4 cables, delivering close to a terabit per second of aggregate bandwidth.

The new SFA10K-X also bumps up the architecture’s storage capacity. A single system can hold up to 1200 drives — a mixture of SSD, SATA and SAS — in just two racks. Fully populated with 3TB disk drives, a system can hold 3.6 PB, which increases the maximum storage capacity 50 percent over the SFA10000.

SSDs are available in 200GB and 400GB flavors, so a fully packed system could theoretically scale to 480TB of solid state memory. Given their expense though, they tend to be used at capacities that correspond to the application’s most volatile data. According to Jeff Denworth, DDN’s marketing VP, the SSDs are available for a tiered storage environment, or if the customer wants extreme IOPS for a portion of their application data, or for file system metadata.

You certainly don’t need SSDs to hit the 15 GB/sec bandwidth rates, he says. That can be delivered with a pure hard disk configuration. We’re not yet seeing a tipping point where it makes sense to use SSDs wholesale to get the best bandwidth economy from a system.” explains Denworth. “We can get full performance using ExaScaler, GridScaler, Lustre or GPFS with just plain SATA drives.”

Like the SFA10000, the SFA10K-X is aimed at the HPC market, but they’re also positioning the appliance to move into what they’re calling “adjacent markets” like big data, cloud, media streaming, and digital security — basically any area with large content workloads with a hunger for both high bandwidth and IOPS.

To that end, DDN has incorporated VMWare and VMWare ESX support into the new offering, the idea being to speed up virtual server and desktop environments. VMWare support already exists in the high throughput (and disk-only) S2A9900 product, but this is the first such support for the company’s SFA line.

Fortunately, all the software upgrades can be rolled back into the SFA10000 product, so existing customers will be able to take advantage of the non-hardware performance tweaks, plus the VMWare support. The back-fitted upgrades come free of charge. That’s good news for customers like the French Atomic Energy agency (CEA), who bought an SFA10000 last year for their Tera-100 supercomputer.  At an aggregate 300 GB/sec, it was already one of the fastest (if not the fastest) petascale storage systems on the planet.

The SFA10K-X is available immediately and has been shipping for some time, according to Denworth. Although no specific customers were mentioned in the press release, Denworth expects a large portion of SFA10K-X clients will be HPC users, as is reflective of DDN’s main market focus. In fact, the new SFA upgrade points the way toward the next HPC storage milestone. Says Denworth: “Everybody here is focused on the needs of exascale.”

But the expansion from HPC to those aforementioned adjacent markets, especially the big data space, is definitely part of DDN’s larger strategy going forward. According to Erwan Menard, the newly appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO), the HPC storage technology that has propelled the company’s success is poised to deliver its benefits where ever scalability, performance, and high capacity are required. In fact, his COO position was created largely to manage DDN’s expected growth on the operations side.

Menard came from Hewlett-Packard where he was the VP and General Manager of the HP’s Communications and Media Solutions Unit, in charge of 2,500 people. DDN only has a few hundred employees right now, but bringing Menard on-board gives some indication of the growth DDN has in mind.

In addition to Menard, who officially joined the company at the beginning of September, the company has been rather active in high-level hires over the past few months. In February, they brought in Jean-Luc Chatelain, another HP alum who is now the VP of Strategy and Technology for DDN. And just this week the company announced two other execs: Bill Cox, VP of worldwide channel sales and a new CFO, Chris O’Meara. In addition, John Dorman, who brings with him a background in financial services, was appointed to the Board of Directors.

Beyond the new blood at the top, there are also 70 job openings at the company, with positions available in the areas of product support, professional service, and R&D. In the latter area, they’re especially looking for help on the software front, which has become the main differentiator for most storage companies, HPC or otherwise.

The company appears quite healthy overall. Although prospects of an IPO, which they floated in 2008, has faded for now, DDN has weathered the recent downturn in the overall economy rather well. Over the most recent three years, 2007 through 2010, DDN recorded an 83 percent growth rate and now claims an annual revenue of about $200 million a year. That makes it several times larger than Panasas, the only other remaining pure-play HPC storage system vendor.

And despite DDN’s aspirations to tackle big data and related markets, Menard maintains the company will simultaneously remain true to its high performance computing roots — the implication being that other HPC storage vendors like BlueArc and Isilon, which were swallowed by larger storage companies, will drift away from their original focus. “We are the ones truly committed to HPC,” he says.