Doubling Down on Scale-out Storage

NetApp this week agreed to acquire Bycast, whose storage virtualization is used for large-scale digital archives and storage clouds — yet another investment by a major systems provider in scale-out storage aimed at tackling the growth of unstructured data. But while big systems vendors realize they need a new approach to solve the workloads generated by the web, cloud and data-intensive applications, are they really ready to ride the commodity hardware cost curve embraced by large web and cloud providers?

Scale-out storage differs from traditional scale-up architectures in that it horizontally adds new storage nodes (servers with internal disks) instead of vertically aggregating lots of individual disk drives behind one or two super-sized controller servers. Scale-out further implies a corresponding software layer that can make hundreds or thousands of nodes act like a single system. It has the potential to change the shape of the data center by displacing large, costly enterprise equipment with an easily sized pool of inexpensive servers.

Google and other web giants have found great success with scale-out approaches. Indeed, for web and cloud computing workloads, increases in users, objects, and capacities drive a need for innovative scaling approaches at low costs, and scale-out storage, by leveraging commodity hardware, fits the bill. (Data storage is just one of the issues we’ll be taking an in-depth look at June 23-24 at the GigaOM Network’s Structure conference in San Francisco.)

The race to capitalize on high-growth, scale-out data markets has led NetApp, HP and EMC to spearhead acquisitions and new product development in this sector. In 2003 NetApp also acquired Spinnaker, which at the time was positioned primarily as a way to aggregate multiple file systems into a single larger file system, or what’s known as a single global namespace. The Spinnaker product resulted in a “tortuous integration effort” according to some, and obviously didn’t fit all of NetApp’s needs when it came to providing scale-out storage, hence the Bycast buy.

HP, similarly, has been around this block a couple of times before. In 2007 the company acquired Polyserve, a clustered file system that had integrated with Oracle solutions, and then in 2009 bought IBRIX, a scale-out storage provider with solid penetration in the animation arena.

EMC, meanwhile, has also had multiple product plays at work. Its first effort to tackle these new scale-out object-based workloads was Centera, which it positioned as a content-aware storage solution. More recently, EMC’s been working on Atmos, a cloud storage product aimed at turning service providers into purveyors of terabytes online.

For NetApp, one of the appealing features about Bycast’s offering is that it doesn’t necessarily replace the underlying storage systems, but rather aggregates existing solutions, including those by NetApp. IBRIX, which was once adopted by customers on a range of hardware platforms including a long relationship with Dell before the HP acquisition, now seems to be tightly packed with HP hardware. And EMC’s offerings do not come in a software-only flavor.

It seems like the appetite to reach the scale-out storage market is still carefully balanced with the existing product lines and systems that form the lifeblood of big vendor sales. But these moves also signal a recognition that scale-out is here to stay, and that NetApp, along with other major systems vendors, will not stop at one acquisition or product to capture the market.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

What’s Next for the Cloud? Distributed Architectures

Gary Orenstein is host of The Cloud Computing Show.