IBM Makes HPC Storage Play

By Michael Feldman

December 7, 2007

On Tuesday IBM announced its first storage product aimed specifically at high performance computing customers. The System Storage DCS9550 targets the elite HPC user whose applications demand extreme levels of performance, storage density and scalability. These applications typically run on capability supercomputers and high-end commercial HPC systems — the heart of IBM's Deep Computing portfolio.

“The addition of the DCS9550 to the IBM portfolio reinforces our commitment to technical computing customers who demand intense computational capability and high data throughput,” said Dave Jursik, Vice President, IBM Worldwide Deep Computing Sales. “This offering complements IBM's industry leading portfolio of HPC servers, storage and software solutions.”

The first DCS9550 product to be released is based on a 3U Fiber Channel disk building block, and will support configurations that provide from 12 to 96 terabytes (TB) of fiber channel and up to 160 TB of SATA storage capacity. Throughput is optimized by full duplex host transfer operation, with sustained performance up to 3 gigabytes per second for both reads and writes. Data integrity is achieved via hardware-enabled RAID 6, which protects data in the event of double disk failure in the same redundancy group. The DCS9550 product is scheduled for general availability in July, 2007.

IBM is already intending to deliver versions that will use SATA disk drives and offer higher capacity but lower-performing storage. The 3U SATA System will support configurations up to 240 TB, while the 4U SATA System will scale all the way up to 720 TB. According to IBM, these platforms are expected to be delivered later this summer.

The DSC9550 is a result of close collaboration between IBM and Data Direct Networks (DDN). The IBM DCS product is a rebranded DDN S2A9550. In the past, IBM offered this type of high-end HPC storage product via their reseller arrangement with DDN. By acting as the OEM for DDN's 9550, IBM is able to provide a complete in-house HPC package — server hardware, middleware, parallel file system (GPFS), and now storage. From DDN's point of view, they have gained a closer relationship with a partner that has a much more extensive market and geographic reach. Over time, the two companies may expand the relationship further and work collaboratively to define requirements for future high performance storage products.

“IBM is a natural fit for the HPC market since they are involved at all different levels including compute platforms and software,” said Tony Asaro, Senior Analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). “It makes sense that they also provide an HPC oriented storage platform. We informally estimate that the HPC storage market is $1.5 billion today, growing at a CAGR of 30 percent. What is compelling about this market is that it is now being driven by revenue generating activities, including advanced engineering and design, oil and gas research, and commercial research. DataDirect has been very successful in this space with its highly optimized storage platform, and its partnership with IBM has the ingredients for real success.”

IBM expects to be able to bundle the new storage offering across most of its Deep Computing server portfolio, including Blue Gene, System p5 and p6 servers, System x servers and the BladeCenter series. Since the 9550 is geared for users who need the highest levels of performance and scalability, those customers already expect to acquire premium hardware. Users purchasing entry-level HPC systems from IBM, such as more modest System x configurations, would tend to look elsewhere for their storage. In this case, IBM may steer them towards their mainstream DS 4000 platform.

Nevertheless, IBM's commitment to the HPC storage niche may signal a shift in how vendors are perceiving their customers. As the HPC market matures, even high-end users are looking for complete solutions with one-stop shopping, service and support. The addition of a storage solution provides a missing piece in IBM's Deep Computing portfolio and may give it an additional competitive edge. Since storage is already a critical bottleneck in high-throughput workloads, other system vendors may start to hook up with HPC storage specialists to get that extra level of differentiation.

Tabor Research believes that HPC storage sales will outperform the overall high performance computing market over the next several years. “Data management solutions are critical to driving productivity in a wide range of HPC applications,” said Addison Snell, vice president and general manager of Tabor Research. “This is an important move for IBM in establishing an end-to-end solution in the HPC market.”

With the democratization of HPC across the enterprise, IBM may be considering the broader opportunity for a storage line that targets high-throughput commercial applications. Although the company is clearly targeting the HPC market with the DCS9550, related applications in Internet searching, interactive multimedia Web environments, and other throughput-hungry online applications may also end up converging on HPC storage platforms.

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