Making Storage Access Application-Centric

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

March 3, 2008

In the world of high-performance enterprise computing, it is generally understood that mission-critical applications need on-demand access to the database. The higher the latency, the less effective the solution. Not as much is said, however, about the storage layer residing below the database. Isn’t it important that applications have as-needed access to the underlying storage, as well?

Pillar Data Systems is trying to remedy this situation with its Axiom family of hardware and software products, which allow users to dynamically provision storage to meet the service levels required by specific applications — something Pillar calls “application-aware storage.” Essentially, according to Pillar’s director of product management, Rob Commins, the company is creating a way for the storage platform to get allocated to applications the same way virtualization software allocates server space or grid middleware allocates computing resources. “All applications are not created equal,” said Commins. “Therefore, not all storage should be created equal.”

Using a method called “statistical short stroking,” as well as thin provisioning, Axiom allows more-important applications to access the outer portion of the disk (which results in faster access) more of the time, while still allowing the application to access lower-priority, lower-speed stored data on the inner portions of the disk the rest of the time. These levels can be changed as needed when new applications enter into the Axiom storage environment. Traditional storage platforms, explained Commins, do not allow users to allocate a disproportionate amount of resources to particular applications, thus negating any “elasticity” that customers might be trying to drive. Additionally, added Commins, Axiom’s methods lead to maximum utilization rates: Axiom users average between 60 and 80-plus percent utilization, whereas traditional systems average between 30 and 40 percent. These improvements in performance and utilization are necessary, says Commins, because while the storage industry has done a good job of figuring out how to handle data growth and scalability, “We’re seeing application proliferation as one of the biggest headaches on the storage side.”

Another big headache, however, is less obvious — and even less foreseen by companies thinking they’re solving all of their problems by embracing server virtualization. Virtualization solutions like VMware, says Commins, bring back a whole host of problems in terms of performance, which ends up having a negative effect on ROI. Virtualized environments cause spindle contention is disk drives, which, when addressed using traditional techniques, requires either a huge sacrifice in performance or a significantly larger amount of storage — typically 20 to 200 percent more than needed. “So,” Commins explained, “the guys holding the wallets … are sitting there surprised, going, ‘Wait a second, I thought this virtualization thing is supposed to save me economic and operational costs, but all that’s really happened is we’ve shifted server dollars back into storage dollars.'” Pillar has addressed this problem by creating profiles for use in virtual environments — including VMware and Oracle VM — thus bringing Axiom’s ability to carve out separate volumes with separate storage services to each VM.

Cost-wise, said Commins, Axiom really starts delivering savings when customers combine applications on the platform. Because most storage platforms essentially utilize the same components, Axiom probably costs about the same as others when used with only one application, “but as customers leverage the architecture for what it’s built for, we see anywhere from 20 to 80 percent advantages in dollars per gigabyte and dollars per IOPS versus traditional methods.” Axiom also saves customers money when compared to traditional separate database and storage layers — which generally consist of two systems from two different vendors, and where resources can’t be allocated between the two — because you can allocate performance and capacity when necessary, said Commins.

Axiom’s application-aware storage is a “necessary” and “very smart” technology, believes Deni Connor, principal analyst with Storage Strategies Now, because users are constantly tying storage to applications, database administrators are always asking for more capacity, and users are always complaining about performance. Outside of the mainframe space, she said, “For a company to actually go in and affect how those storage resources are used, how performance is built into it, how cache memory and disk are built into it, is something that hasn’t really been done before.”

As a result, said Connor, customers with applications and databases that need fast access to the storage layer, as well as those running HPC environments, will likely be clamoring for solutions like Axiom. “Everyone talks in terms of the application and what they need and when they need it and what type of service level is attached to it,” she noted. In the two years Pillar has been marketing and selling Axiom, the company has accumulated more than 350 customers running a total of more than 550 Axiom systems, with most of the uptake coming from the financial services, medical, education, government and, as of late, legal markets.

Whereas other vendors have tried to do some of what Axiom does by adding optimizers or additional layers to their offerings, Commins believes Pillar has attracted so many customers because its approach of working the concept of application-aware storage into the every aspect of the Axiom architecture makes it so effective and so unique, not to mention cost-effective. You can derive some significant ROI, he said, “from investing in a platform versus yet another mutually exclusive storage system in the bone pile of gear on the datacenter floor.”

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