Scalable NAS initiative at Ancestry.com demonstrates competing products can coexist

Find out how Ancestry.com ended up with scalable NAS systems from competing companies Isilon and BlueArc -- and what lessons its use case offers to storage VARs.

SearchStorage.com recently ran a very interesting article about a storage topic that’s only getting hotter: scalable NAS. As the story explains, Ancestry.com is using two scalable NAS systems, each from a leader in the space for many years. Its choice of two similar products exemplifies what can happen in growing companies as their IT needs change. It also demonstrates an opportunity for storage VARs.

Within the scale-out NAS architecture space, Isilon is arguably the best-known company, having largely defined the market in the 10-plus years it has been in business, long before EMC bought it last year. Isilon’s architecture is a tightly coupled cluster of modules, or nodes, each of which has storage capacity, processing power and I/O connectivity. It allows storage capacity to grow well beyond the limits of traditional scale-up systems, which have a single- or dual-controller configuration and a fixed ability to process data.

By including CPU and I/O connectivity in each storage module, scale-out NAS systems can grow far beyond the maximum spindle counts that traditional NAS systems can support for each controller. Also, scale-out NAS systems don’t hit the performance wall that many scale-up architectures do, which can happen long before a specific configuration has reached its storage capacity limit.

Ancestry.com had exactly this kind of problem with its legacy NetApp systems, which the company’s storage manager said couldn’t support enough capacity and still provide decent performance. While NetApp’s simple interface and administration had at one point served Ancestry.com’s needs well, its needs had changed. The system couldn’t grow through forklift upgrades, so it went to scale-out storage. Then an interesting thing happened in this account: Its needs changed again. Ancestry.com was very happy with its Isilon systems, but it developed a need for even more performance.

That’s where BlueArc entered the picture. BlueArc, which was founded more than 10 years ago, has focused on a different aspect of the NAS market than Isilon. Whereas Isilon is typically brought in to address capacity scaling concerns, BlueArc focuses on the high-performance end of the NAS environment. While not exactly a scale-out solution, BlueArc’s products are also not truly scale-up. They’re more of hybrid between the two. BlueArc’s controller nodes comprise four separate internal blades, for network connectivity, file services and storage connectivity. Each cluster can contain as many as eight of these nodes with different configurations of blades. Storage capacity is added to each node in drive shelves, similar to scale-up storage, but with the ability to add controller nodes, the system achieves a scale-out effect.

Although Ancestry.com admitted this was a relatively expensive solution, it needed the performance and was willing to pay for it. Now it has a combination of storage systems that meets its needs, and it’s planning to buy more of both.

This story highlights a couple of established technologies in the storage space, from Isilon and BlueArc, each of which began as a startup and built a very strong customer base before being acquired by the storage “establishment” (BlueArc was bought by Hitachi Data Systems in 2011). They are two of the strongest players in the scalable NAS category, and they compete in deals all the time. But they’re now running in the same data center, for a customer that needs both products.

The fact that Ancestry.com ended up with two products from different companies in the same space is certainly unusual. Had EMC bought Isilon earlier than it did, it’s possible that Ancestry.com would have looked to EMC for a performance NAS alternative rather than to BlueArc. (Isilon itself, in fact, has a newer model, the S-Series, whose performance might compare to BlueArc’s.) But from the VAR perspective, the point is the same: Among customers, use cases vary, and sometimes a customer will need multiple solutions to solve a problem. And, accounts’ needs evolve as the companies do. At one point, Ancestry.com was probably a prime account for NetApp’s original NAS solution. But then it grew into a strong account for scale-out storage. Now, in addition, it’s also a good account for a third, high-performance NAS solution.

As a VAR, if you ever needed a reason to keep showing new products to your existing customers or to keep calling on accounts that don’t currently buy from you, this is it.

Change is constant, and VARs are in the best position to stay on top of that wave of technology and keep providing what customers need -- and what they want to see. After all, you have to get in the door first.

Eric Slack is a senior analyst with Storage Switzerland.

This was first published in February 2012

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