IBM Envisions Clustered Modular Storage

The company also plans to introduce in the next couple of quarters solid-state drives that will work alongside hard-disk drives.
IBM's next-generation storage architecture will be based on clusters of inexpensive servers and storage devices that are software managed and offer an alternative to tiers of increasingly expensive devices, the head of the company's storage unit said Thursday.

In an interview with InformationWeek, Andrew Monshaw, general manager of system storage for IBM, said the foundation of IBM's future approach will be the technology acquired last month in the purchase of XIV Ltd., a Tel Aviv-based maker of high-performance digital storage systems. The startup provides the tools IBM needs to deliver what Monshaw called "clustered modular storage."

Also, in meeting customers' needs for faster storage devices, IBM plans to introduce in the next couple of quarters solid-state drives that will work alongside hard-disk drives, Monshaw said.

The demand for computer storage systems is growing as more of the world's information goes digital. In addition, companies are storing larger files, such as video, and are being forced to keep data longer to comply with government regulations. IBM sees "uncapped, unbridled growth in data" of from 60% to 100% a year, Monshaw said.

In competing for that business, IBM is battling EMC, which leads the $4.4 billion market for external disk storage systems with a 22% share. IBM is second in the market with a 14% share, while Hewlett-Packard is third with 13.4%, according to IDC. Dell and Hitachi round out the top five at 9.3% and 8.5%, respectively

In buying XIV in January, IBM reportedly paid between $300 million and $350 million, a high sum for a startup. What IBM got for its money was XIV's Nextra technology, a storage area networking technology that combines software and off-the-shelf hardware into a high-performance storage grid. The technology also provides advanced management features like built-in virtualization and remote mirroring.

"XIV is the new architecture to handle emerging trends" in storage demand, Monshaw said. In using inexpensive hardware, along with virtualization for consolidation, the architecture can scale while keeping power consumption and the use of space in the data center in check. In addition, the use of software intelligence to make better use of tape storage versus disk storage will also keep costs down. "Tape is a very green architecture by its very nature, since it consumes nothing at rest," Monshaw said.

In the use of solid-state drives, IBM plans to introduce software that can extend the life of the hardware, a major limitation in the use of SSDs in data centers. While SSDs are faster and use less energy than hard drives, they don't last as long in environments serving applications that are constantly writing and rewriting data to storage devices.

IBM has managed to extend the life of SSDs in such environments to an acceptable three to five years through software that writes to the hardware in a more efficient manner, Monshaw said. SSDs wear out quicker the more times they're written to, so keeping the process down to an absolute minimum extends the life of the device.

While SSDs won't replace HDDs, the former is expected to play a more important role when faster storage is needed at a lower level of energy consumption. Nevertheless, the up-front cost for SSDs is higher, so IBM expects it to take time for customers to see the business value of mixing the two storage devices, Monshaw said.

While IT spending could slow this year because of the current economic slowdown, Monshaw expects the storage segment to perform better than many other technology markets. "Information infrastructure is going to continue to grow at a rate that exceeds basic IT growth," he said. "There's no single force on any side of this equation that points to a slowdown in growth."