Sun debuts Amber Road storage lineup, boosts performance with flash memory

Hardware/software bundle manages up to four tiers of storage

The use of flash memory to dramatically improve transaction processing highlights Sun Microsystems' new Amber Road line of storage appliances.

The use of flash memory to dramatically improve transaction processing highlights a new line of storage appliances announced Monday by Sun.

See slideshow of Sun's Amber Road Storage 7000 series

The iSCSI storage appliances combine standard hard drives with flash memory and the latest AMD processors, with underlying software that optimizes performance by moving data around different tiers depending on changing needs. The Amber Road line of appliances includes entry-level, midrange and more expensive enterprise models.

Competitor "EMC has taken a conventional approach [in Symmetrix arrays] where they're essentially swapping out a hard disk drive for a solid state disk drive," says Burton Group analyst Gene Ruth. Sun is doing a better job leveraging the power of flash to improve transactional performance, he says.

"It's innovative because they're using solid state disk to enhance the performance of their back-end file system," Ruth says. (Compare storage products.)

Sun's ZFS file system is integrated into the appliances to manage up to four tiers of storage: DRAM, a read-optimized solid state disk, a write-optimized SSD and a general storage tier. ZFS automatically recognizes different I/O patterns and moves data around to make the best use of each tier, according to Sun. The key is to transparently manage and allocate storage space from flash, DRAM and hard disk in a highly scalable way, says Ray Austin, group manager of Sun's storage product marketing.

Early adopter Jason Williams, COO and CTO of hosted e-mail security provider DigiTar in Boise, Idaho, says using a solid state disk as cache, in combination with high capacity drives, makes sense.

"You need one [flash disk] to give you the performance, and you need a lot of storage behind it," he says.

Storage appears to be one of the few bright spots at Sun, which reported a loss of nearly $1.7 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter. Sun’s storage revenue grew 29% in the second quarter this year, a growth that Sun attributes to its "open storage" initiative that combines open source software with commodity hardware.

"Open source in storage is relatively new," says 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman. "There's some potential here. They have managed to grow that business."

The storage market is starting to move away from proprietary systems to ones built with open components, a development that should lower pricing and lead to faster innovation, says Matthew Baier, director of Sun's OpenSolaris marketing.

The three products in today's Amber Road announcement are the entry-level Storage 7110, with up to 2TB of storage; the 7210 with up to 48TB of storage; and the 7410 with up to 288TB of storage.

Solid state disks come only with the 7210 and 7410. The entry-level system is in production already, and the other two will be available within a few weeks.

Each appliance comes with software based on ZFS, OpenSolaris and the MySQL database. By using Sun's own open source software, the company has been able to significantly lower the cost of storage, says Illuminata analyst John Webster.

"It's sort of an amazing combination of a lot of things with a reasonably small price tag," he says.

The entry-level 7110 system pricing starts at $10,995 for 2TB. Midrange 7210 systems start at $34,995 for 11.5TB. The high-end 7410 system with 12TB starts at either $57,490 or $89,490 depending on whether you get one or two server nodes.

Williams, who has a 2TB entry-level system and a 12TB enterprise system, says he uses them for message archiving, running VMware on development servers, and consolidating various pools of storage. In addition to the relatively low price, Williams credits Sun for snapshotting capabilities built into the file system that give him extra flexibility for backups. However, he would like to see Sun add de-duplication to the product line.

Sun says it will announce more storage appliances and software upgrades next year.

See slideshow of Sun's Amber Road Storage 7000 series

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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