Nearline bridges primary and back-up storage gap

Half way between primary storage and backup storage, NearStore from Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) is nearline storage that solves some of the problems of the two traditional classes of storage and is a complimentary storage solution.

Traditionally, there has been primary or disk storage for data that is required quickly and frequently, and tape or back-up storage for data that is archival or doesn’t need to be retrieved very often. Primary storage has fast retrieval, but it is expensive. Back-up storage takes time to find, but is less expensive.

The newer third class of storage is nearline and typically includes optical disks, jukeboxes and WORMs – the kind of worms otherwise known as a Write-Once/Read-Many drive that reads and writes data using various types of removable optical disk media. These are faster than tape, but also more expensive, says Jeff Goldstein, president of Canadian operations for NetApp.

So far, of the 100 large corporations that have deployed NetApp NearStore solutions, four are Canadian. The product was released in March, but the sales staff didn’t get to work in Canada until mid-summer. Now 20 more companies are seriously considering it, Goldstein says.

“Even though the economy is tough, customers are looking at NearStore, because it has a compelling return on investment. It can save money and improve the availability of data,” he says.

In the health care field, for example, medical imaging has become an important diagnostic tool, but MRIs and other space-hogging images are expensive to keep in online storage. A medical technician can wait minutes or hours to call up a patient’s MRI when it is in the less expensive backup storage. Goldstein says that since NearStore is fast and efficient, those medical images that are 30 days to 12 months old, for example, can be placed in nearline storage and retrieved quickly.

“There’s a trade off between performance and cost,” he adds.

NearStore uses ATA disks, the same as those used in laptop computers.

“What we’ve done is taken ATA drive and used some of our secret sauce and software and built large arrays of disk drives,” Goldstein says. This can replace optical disks and WORMs but complements primary and offline storage.

“You used to back up to tape and if you had a problem like a corrupted file, or a flood in the data centre, the tape could recover it,” he says. “Now you can back up to NearStore, which is a disk-to-disk back up. It is fast and reliable.”

The smallest NearStore product, about the size of half a fridge, will store 7TB of data. Up to eight of the larger fridge-sized 12TB NearStore units can be strung together, bringing a capacity of 96TB of information in nearline storage.

Although backing up means downtime for the users, which is a problem for health facilities, banks or international organizations, backing up to NearStore takes less time and allows system users to continue, says Goldstein. Once data has been moved to NearStore, it can go into the backup storage system in a two-step process called staging.

“This is of interest to large organizations who can’t afford to have their system in back up mode for very long,” he says.

Goldstein claims it also helps financial institutions meet newer, more stringent requirements in the wake of the Enron fiasco to ensure there is an information trail that identifies accountability. These institutions are now required to keep regulated data, such as email, for two or three years. A bank may have 20TB of email history. NearStore sucks off historical email and sits it on a nearline device, Goldstein says.

“We are seeing U.S. financial and healthcare regulation drive Canadian companies with subsidiaries, customers and suppliers in the U.S. towards more retention of their data,” adds Val Bercovici, NetApp’s chief technical architect.

“Nearline storage is a key market segment now addressing those requirements. We see other vendors releasing ATA disk-based nearline solutions for the edges of this spectrum (online backup at one end, reference and archiving at the other end). NetApp’s NearStore family complements other vendors’ primary storage and addresses the entire nearline spectrum, while also directly extending NetApp’s own primary storage technology.”

Goldstein also notes nearline storage’s usefulness in financial call centres. If a customer wants information about a bill from six months ago, this information is accessible and fast to retrieve if nearline stored.

“They can’t afford to keep it in primary data or wait one hour to get the bill from tape, so bills that are one to three years old can sit in nearline,” he says.

NearStore has teamed up with numerous software companies to make this nearline data product compatible. These include IBM, Legato, BakBone and Verica.

These partnerships permit certified software solutions that focus on business continuance, rapid recovery, data archiving, reference and archiving and messaging applications.

“That is changing the ground rules in terms of how people view nearline data. We think we won’t be the only ones to get into the marketplace with this,” Goldstein says.

Certainly they aren’t. For example, StorageTek nearline storage boasts a total capacity of 120TB. It possesses an STK9310 robot arm and tape drives that can handle 9840 tapes. These tapes can store 20GB of data. In addition, the robot arm has two hands to increase the speed with a factor of two as compared to a robot arm having only one hand.

DISC Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., claims its NearLine storage solutions come at a fraction of the total cost of Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID). It offers nearline storage capacities ranging from 40GB to more than 9TB of data. In September, the company promised its modular architecture will allow customers to scale their storage capacity up to four times within the same chassis with field upgradeable modules.

Goldstein says NetApp’s next step is to double the storage capacity of NearStore so that a fridge-sized system will hold 24TB instead of 12TB, doubling the aggregated capacity to 192TB. The company has 2,400 employees worldwide and anticipates doing $1 billion in revenue this fiscal year.