1984 revisited.

I remember watching the Super Bowl XVIII with my father in 1984 when, unexpectedly during an otherwise boring third quarter, an advert came on which would change the way we think about computing forever.  The advert was directed by Ridley Scott …who would go on to make such classics as Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator …cost millions of dollars and months to make, lasted exactly sixty seconds, and was shown exactly …once.  I remember watching the advert speechless and wishing to see it again …but I wouldn’t see it again until many years later when You Tube made such things possible.

I won’t go into the advert in any great detail as it deserves to be seen and digested [click here to view], but it purported to introduce the Apple Macintosh to the world on 24 January 1984.  What it actually did was fire the first salvos of the ‘open system’ movement against the traditional mainframe world.  My father, who was an executive in the ‘data processing’ department …Information Technology, or ‘IT’ didn’t exist yet …watched the advert, turned to me, and proceeded to tell me how we would someday watch movies without going to the cinema, watch any movie ever made when and where we wanted to, listen to any piece of music ever recorded when and where we wanted to …and carry the sum total of the world’s library content in our pockets.

Now, my old man was heavy into Star Trek [still is, as am I, and I’ve passed on this geekdom to PL Junior!] and I have to admit that, at the time, I thought he had been watching one too many episodes with JT Kirk and the boys and/or had had one too many G&Ts during the course of the Super Bowl.  I nodded politely and went back to noshing on the nachos and sour cream my mum had made.

What has this got to do with Data Storage and Protection?

Far from being doolally, my father was describing things to me in 1984 that we now take for granted.  iPods, You Tube, Spotify, e-ink eReaders …all have become reality and, it is projected that within 15 years we will have personal storage systems capable of holding the contents of all of the world’s libraries in a form factor small enough to fit in your pocket.  Really.  But how did my father predict such things?  Was he a futurist who missed out on the big time?  Sadly, no.  He went to uni with people who would go on to work for DARPA and they would often sit up late into the evening over G&Ts discussing the latest developments in data networking technology.  They could see the practical applications of the internet they were developing, and I would argue that there are many parallels to be found in the success of the internet and the future of data storage.

The internet was not originally designed to be the delivery mechanism for fine purveyors of pornography but, rather, a way for the US government and military to communicate from coast to coast and all throughout the US in the event of WWIII …and the Soviet Union had wiped entire communication nodes …and cities …off the map with nuclear weapons.  It is a system that is designed to fail …a resilient system which can continue to operate even after multiple and massive failures.  Another interesting feature of the internet is it is designed to use standard ‘off the shelf’ components such that, as the components’ quality and processing power increases, they can be put into the internet without having to take down or redesign the whole flippin’ thing.  Think dial up modem to ‘wired’ broadband to ubiquitous WiFi and you get the picture.

A similar revolution is happening in storage.  The original storage arrays were really more like massive servers on steroids …in fact, they looked and behaved much like the mainframes they were meant to replace.  They have a central processor known as a controller, cache which acts much like the memory in a server, and well …disks.  The disks provide the massive and shared storage, but are connected to the controllers and cache.  A great architecture to start with, but as the amount of data we are creating has exploded exponentially it has become less and less efficient and more difficult to manage.  Indeed, whilst functionality has been added to the architecture …data replication, modular arrays, iSCSI, NAS, and so on …the central principle of architecture design hasn’t changed all that much in quite a while.  Most importantly, they are designed to never fail …and as a result of that principle, we find ourselves in something programmers call an ‘infinite loop’ which becomes ever more expensive to manage.

So what’s the answer?  Well, we need to turn the central principle on it’s head and design systems which fail.  Now, I know that may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me.  The quality of standard components has increased significantly over the past ten years …we now have hard drives and Intel processors in our laptops which would have powered supercomputers ten years ago …but, things still fail from time to time.

My view is parallel processing or ‘grid architecture’ storage is the answer, and these systems will soon eclipse the traditional storage architectures.  What is grid architecture storage?  The specifics can be somewhat complicated, but in principle you have data and communication modules which replace the controllers and cache with software to connect all of the modules together.  What does this give us?  The ability to use algorithms which write data to all of the data drives simultaneously …and as each module uses standard components with CPU and memory on board, I can lose a module without losing data as well as increasing system performance by replacing the standard components with the new whizz bang models as they become available.  The secret sauce of the software which connects the modules is what allows us to provide performance and reliability equivalent or greater to traditional systems …at an acquisition and management cost much lower than traditional storage systems.

So who is using grid architecture?  If you have Googled anything recently, you’ve used grid storage architecture.  And, if grid storage is the answer, who makes it?  Well, IBM XiV was the first past the mark but now EMC Vmax has joined the scene …and NetApp, HDS, HP aren’t far behind.  What will set each of them apart, in my opinion, is how they implement grid architecture as well as the functionality they provide as standard.

If you aren’t thinking about grid architecture storage, you should be …this is a tidal wave which is already transforming the storage marketplace and, whilst we  have ‘first mover’ advantage with the promise of fair pricing at the moment this won’t last forever.

Please feel free to contact me if I can help you understand grid architeture more fully and in greater depth, including the very real cost savings which can be gained.

-Matthew
Click here to contact me

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