Reliable and Resilient Data Centers Using Off-the-Shelf Components

Looking for methodologies that enable you to cost effectively benefit from new technologies? Consider leveraging off-the-shelf technology.

by Don Ayers

IT organizations must periodically evaluate new technologies and strategies to help stay current and meet the demands of their internal and external customers. They must look for methodologies to enable their organizations to cost effectively take advantage of new technologies. Over the years, off-the-shelf (OTS) technology has played an important role in speeding delivery and adoption of IT solutions. As with any strategy, there are advantages and pitfalls in attempting to leverage OTS products and components.

The use of OTS in a data center has been a boon to the IT community. Manufacturers have been taking advantage of off-the-shelf or best-of-breed technology for years. There is no need to build a better widget from scratch when you have quality technology readily available. Hardware manufacturers have long taken advantage of this approach at the component level (chips, disk drives, etc). By using these OTS components, products can be accelerated to market with reduced development time and cost.

Looking a little deeper, the tape storage industry has taken the next step of optimizing OTS components. Tape drives were initially built by the same manufacturers that built tape libraries. They were built as field replaceable units (FRUs) to ease maintenance. Although they achieved this goal, it gave other manufacturers the opportunity to develop tape libraries utilizing other companies’ drive technologies. For example, Quantum’s DLT technology was one of the first to enjoy a broad acceptance and be installed in a wide variety of tape libraries from different manufacturers.

The server industry adopted the use of a bus with pluggable cards that allowed customers to buy the features they needed, allowing them to change options easily and cost effectively. Network switch vendors have even started to adopt a modular approach in their design strategies. Some vendors now offer a variety of cards to change the configuration of a switch as business needs change.

The disk storage industry, however, has held on to the need to incorporate new technology into an integrated controller. This is now changing. Some members of the disk community have chosen to make use of OTS at a new level. Following a similar course as other industry segments, some have chosen to use OTS for entire controller architectures. The controller hardware can be replaced with a powerful, general-purpose server. Communications are managed with OTS host bust adapters (HBAs) and the disk management software is proprietary to the storage manufacturer.

The advantages of OTS can be tremendous. Technology upgrades are simply a matter of qualification and deployment. Network protocol changes require only a change of cards. Gone are the days of the dreaded forklift upgrade, where hardware investments can be lost due to the evolution of technology. Customers interested in exploring iSCSI can install an iSCSI card and run traffic in parallel to their Fibre Channel SAN. The investment becomes $2,000 to $3,000 instead of $50,000 to $75,000. Investigating and leveraging new storage architectures gets easier.

Both customers and disk vendors come out winners. Faster time-to-market enables faster adoption of new and improved technologies. Reduced R&D costs save the vendor and customer money.

As an example, consider the traditional disk vendor that is selling a controller with 4Gb Host ports. When new 8GB HBAs built from OTS components are released to the market, their customers face a difficult decision: wait for a doubling in host throughput or abandon their current investment and buy a new controller with 8Gb host ports. The decision now becomes, “Do I stay with my current disk controller architecture or open the door to the controller architecture of the future?”

Relying on the Vendor

When a product has flexibility built into the product architecture, the customer must also rely on the manufacturer for the interoperability testing and validation. Even though it’s a general-purpose server and you are able to upgrade components, make sure the vendor supports upgrades to the server, and learn how the upgrade is accomplished. The hardware vendor does extensive interoperability and quality assurance testing when selecting new hardware to insure full functionality.

Although a product complies with industry standards, added value functionality above and beyond the industry standard may be utilized in recommended components to deliver greater value to the customer. If users normally complete an upgrade on their own, it most likely will void warranties and support contracts. Even though it may cost more to have the vendor perform the upgrade, they have done the compatibility testing and will ensure it will work and support the configuration.

When considering the value of integrating an OTS product strategy, evaluate the competing static technology solutions. How do they compare with the overall industry technology road map? How do they fit into your technology strategy? OTS products will be able to respond to technology changes without forklift upgrades. Don’t be afraid to ask the OTS vendor about their road map for current and planned support of upgradeable components and functionality, costs for upgrades, and changes to support contracts. By understanding the OTS upgrade strategy, the true long-term value is recognized. Working closely with the OTS vendor, technology improvements to the customer’s environment can be cost-effective and efficient.

Don Ayers is director of product management at Atrato. You can reach the author at

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