Storage woes lead to startup

For nearly a decade, senior systems architect Barron Mertens would describe his alternative job title as “Unhappy Storage Consumer”.

Eventually he just couldn’t take it anymore. So he started to build his own data storage boxes.

Still a “techie” at heart, his other title is now Chief Executive Officer for London, Ont.-based startup DSG Storage Inc. These days, Mertens gathers together bits and pieces of hardware and software to assemble his own iSCSI storage arrays.

Mertens is a big believer in iSCSI as both a cost-effective and high-performing alternative to Fibre Channel. “There are no inherent speed limits in iSCSI,” he says. “With iSCSI, your storage will be as fast as you can make your network.”

Last month the company launched its Q Series, which adds more functionality to the RAID controller, and also announced a deal with Chelsio Communications Inc. to offer gigabit-per-second and 10Gbps Ethernet (10GigE) storage capabilities.

Mertens says the company hopes to unveil its C Series high-end server hardware in the summer, developing its own Linux-based software stack and integrating that with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Chelsio’s high-speed network off-load capability.

“We don’t like the fact that iSCSI is being pigeonholed as slow,” says Mertens.

“There’s nothing that says iSCSI needs to be slow, other than it’s more work. But there’s no reason you can’t deliver more horsepower to get the job done. And now that we’ve got all these features available, we figure it’s time to deliver the speed now.”

As an alternative to 10GigE switches, DSG plans to offer an array with a high port count of 1Gbps connections. Mertens says 10GigE switches are still too pricey. “Not everyone will want to go that way, 10GigE is really most relevant for people looking for bandwidth.

“Most users can probably get all the performance they need from lots of 1Gbps connections because they’re not going to fill pipe with volume, they’re trying to do lots of little work.”

George Salmaniw, a systems coordinator with the Department of National Defence, needed a new repository to manage about four terabytes of raw data, with the capability to grow between 1TB and 2TB a year.

He says he opted for the iSA Series 24-drive array mainly for its low cost and the software DSG has packed into its product.

“I didn’t have a lot of money to spend and I didn’t want something that I knew I was either being over-sold on or else the price wasn’t right, based on my knowledge of the industry,” says Salmaniw, who is based at the Department’s Trinity Operational Information Management office in Halifax.

“What you’re paying for with the big vendors is the software that’s gone into managing these devices.”

Salmaniw had previously read up on Norfolk, Va.-based software provider Wasabi Systems Inc. “I was impressed when I saw DSG was using this software for its products.”

He says for $22,000 he’s getting almost 9TB of raw storage, which is almost double the capacity he initially thought he needed. “We have it up to about 6TB that’s useable. And for that amount of money, to have that amount of space is quite unique,” says Salmaniw.

The idea of building low-cost storage arrays came to Mertens when he worked as systems architect with the University of Western Ontario, where he maintained a “modest” data centre for one of the faculties on campus.

When the university decided to expand its SAN (storage area network) capability, Mertens believed iSCSI was the way to go. “It’s so much easier to build and to architect with iSCSI and it’s so trivial to add extra storage,” he says.

The university already had a significant Fibre Channel-based SAN to support its big database clusters, so Mertens was aware of the high costs associated with high performance. “The price mushroom factor is just incredible. You can get into Fibre Channel on an entry level, but when it’s time to grow the SAN, the price grows exponentially.”

Once he started learning about iSCSI and shopping around, Mertens says he was shocked to find pricing not far below that of Fibre Channel. “Basically, the implementation price was less, but the purchase price was the same.”

That’s when he decided to make his own iSCSI. “I started scrounging every place for the bits and pieces. It’s really just a software protocol issue,” says Mertens. “I started to understand that this wasn’t really that complicated.”

Among the other startups playing in the iSCSI space are EqualLogic, Intransa, LeftHand Networks, StoneFly and Montreal-based Ciara Technologies.

QuickLink: 062710

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