Storage that takes care of itself

How the SFF drives weigh up

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: SFF (small form factor) drives allow you to squeeze more spindles into the same rack space, giving you better performance in the same real estate. As an bonus, using 2.5-inch drives reduces the amount of electricity you use and creates less heat than using their larger cousins, essentially making your storage array less demanding on your wallet and on the electric grid.

Naysayers will object that SFF drives cannot compete when capacity is the main objective. True, with a maximum capacity of 500GB, SFF drives deliver half of what 3.5-inch drives offer, but this concern can be trumped by other considerations -- less weight and fewer vibrations transmitted to the enclosure, for example.

Atrato, which shipped its first product earlier this year, has added yet another trump card to the SFF array game, security. But before l lift the lid on Atrato's new security play, let me familiarize you with its array, the V1000.

The V1000 is a 3U, locked enclosure that can host up to 160 2.5-inch SATA drives. Atrato locks its enclosure to make drive replacements impossible, thereby eliminating any human error while identifying which one out of all those drives could have failed. The vendor has instead devised a system to compensate for drive failures with spare capacity set aside at deployment time. Atrato backs up its faith in the self-healing capabilities of its V1000 with a three-year hardware warranty, during which time Atrato expects no array maintenance will be needed.

With 320GB drives, you get a raw capacity of just more than 51TB per enclosure. Usable capacity, however, varies according to the level of resilience you want. According to Atrato CEO Dan McCormick, customers typically set aside 12.5 per cent of the enclosure's total capacity for it to tap in the event that the V1000's software can't repair a failed drive.

Atrato has named its architecture SAID (self-maintaining array of identical disks); no surprises there, and one more acronym for your enjoyment.

To further improve the resilience of the V1000 you can set two-way and three-way striping-mirroring RAID plus RAID 50. The combination of failed-drive reserves and RAID cuts down the capacity available to the application appreciably, but it's the price you pay for data safety.

As for performance, Atrato says the V1000 allows you to stream 3,000 movies without a hiccup from its 3U enclosure; competing solutions with similar performance usually fill up a rack or two. I haven't had a chance to review the unit yet, but I'll let you know whether its performance lives up to the company's namesake, a river in Colombia that has a rather impressive water flow.

The 11,000 IOPS that Atrato claims on the same configuration are less impressive, which could be one of the reasons why the vendor is targeting HPC customers and staying away, at least for now, from the crowded, cutthroat transactional space. Which is a pity because in addition to the V1000's three-year maintenance-free period and its excellent performance/space ratio, Atrato claims up to 80 per cent reduction in cooling, electricity, and connectivity cost -- savings that could have a significant impact on the budget of many corporate datacenters, not to mention the environment.

Of course, while trumpeting the V1000's strong points, the company has been less than forthcoming on other aspects of the solution. For example, I find from the online specs on the Atrato site that the V1000 also includes a controller, a 2U unit that mounts FC connectivity to the host system and SAS ports facing the storage array, but that PDF file says very little, if anything, about memory, processors mounted, and software capability, for example.

During our briefing, McCormick was noticeably less eloquent when I asked for more details about the V1000 (price, for example), but he did volunteer that Atrato is working on adding more intelligence, more diversified connectivity, and additional application capabilities in future versions.

For now, Atrato has equipped the V1000 with an important feature that no other storage vendors can claim: full drive encryption, which makes the enclosure a trusted vault for storing sensitive data and copyrighted material without affecting performance.

A quick look at the Atrato job-posting site shows that the company is still filling its ranks with technical engineers -- another indication that Atrato is serious about upping the V1000 ante.

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Mario Apicella

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