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Data management systems vendors add thin provisioning, resellers capitalize

As data management systems vendors add thin-provisioning software to their feature sets, resellers are capitalizing on the value-add storage management tool.

Faced with a high-end data storage market in which virtualization is becoming increasingly common and customers demand even more flexible storage management tools, some data management systems vendors are adding space-allocation features, specifically thin provisioning software, to systems that are already designed to be unusually efficient users of hard-disk space.

The most recent example is Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), which last week began shipping the first of its enterprise storage systems -- the Universal Storage Platform V, (USP V) -- to contain thin provisioning software. Thin provisioning is a feature of some virtualized storage arrays that allows the controller to assign capacity to a particular user or application on a provisional basis, to be used only when that capacity is really required.

The new USP V enables administrators to allocate one or more pools of available disk space for thin provisioning pools and make the same block of disk space available to several servers, only one of which would use it at any given time.

HDS execs said virtualization and thin provisioning will raise utilization rates, perhaps to as high as 80%. That will simplify storage capacity management, improve performance and reduce the effort to do provisioning, according to Claus Mikkelsen, chief scientist at Hitachi Data Systems.

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"What's actually physically used is taken out of the pool, so the customer can buy just enough hard drives or media to meet the current capacity," Mikkelsen said. "As the applications grow and start requiring more of that virtual LUN that they've asked for, the customer just merely needs to add more hard drives," Mikkelsen added.

The ability to assign available space only as it is needed can drive down the number and cost of disk drives required, because customers don't have to buy each server the maximum amount of storage space it will ever need, according to Andrew Reichman, analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Instead, customers can allocate to each server enough disk space to cover its usual requirements, and use thin provisioning to give each additional capacity for periods of unusual activity.

"If you have applications that have historically sat there with 20% utilization and they're not growing tremendously then you can put them in a thin-provisioned storage system and drastically reduce the number of empty drives that are reserved to them," Reichman said.

The ability to sell thin provisioning in a high-end platforms is good news for HDS resellers like Chanhassen, Minn.-based Datalink Corp. whose chief technology officer, Scott Robinson, is anticipating positive sales as well as providing advice to customers who are unaware of the full benefits that thin provisioning has to offer.

"Most customers may have an awareness of what it means, but it's not something that is high on their priority list to go and take advantage of," Robinson said. "We talk to customers about thin provisioning in many cases in the context of enhancing your consolidated storage infrastructure so it gets into tiered storage and then within the tiers how do you optimize the tiers, and thin provisioning is one of the components of that," Robinson added.

Greg Knierieman, VP of marketing and business development at Cleveland, Ohio-based Chi Corporation, said while thin provisioning by itself is not necessarily the driver that makes an end user want to purchase a storage system, it is one of a set of features that drives the solution.

"Thin provisioning is a value-add. I would not necessarily say that it alone is a driver for business, and for people purchasing storage, but if they are looking at different types of storage or SAN technologies, and we've identified that they need to be able to expand their capacity specifically to applications and other things quickly, then this makes a lot of sense," Knierieman said.

Dan Molina, chief technology officer at San Diego, Calif.-based Nth Generation Computing Inc. said enterprise data management customers will experience fewer disruptions by using thin provisioning software.

"It is a very high value proposition. When you have to expand the size of your volumes it can become a disruptive process, and with thin provisioning you don't have to worry about that. I can see thin provisioning helping in the VMware environment where you have a lot of virtual machines leveraging the same volume," Molina said.

IDC's Brad Nisbet reckons the storage industry is now at the stage where vendors are almost obliged to help their enterprise data management customers consume less capacity and thin provisioning is a part of this trend.

Furthermore, Nisbet said, thin provisioning helps data storage planning so that, for example, if a customer knew that an application over the course of the next two years is going to need 100 terabytes (TB) without thin provisioning, ideally that customer would buy 100 TB for that application. With thin provisioning, however, storage managers have a chance to change storage purchasing habits.

"With thin provisioning you can buy 20 TB that you need today, and virtually allocate 100 TB for that application," Nisbet said.

That gives storage managers the ability to spread storage costs over a longer period of time, which is a real consideration as disk drives and the dollar per gigabyte associated with storage is constantly falling, Nisbet said.

"You don't have to buy the 100 TB all today; you can buy 20 TB today at today's prices, and buy another 20 TB next quarter at a reduced price," Nisbet added.

Recently, several storage vendors have indicated that they will add thin provisioning to their enterprise data management storage systems, including Hewlett Packard Corp., which will offer thin provisioning in the XP24000 enterprise system in July. Sun Microsystems Inc. recently announced that thin provisioning will be offered in its Sun StorageTek 9990V storage system and EMC Corporation will be extending its thin provisioning capabilities to its high-end Symmetrix DMX 3 systems as well as its CLARiiON CX line in early 2008.

Let us know what you think about this story; email: Nicole Lewis, Senior News Writer

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