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Custom Chips Still Matter

Despite the storage industry's marked shift to industry-standard processors, there will always be room for custom design, said ESG's Garrett.

"For example, custom silicon is often needed to handle communication and locking between processors," said Garrett. "Adding a pinch of custom high-speed locking or caching silicon is often needed to remain competitive from a performance and/or fault tolerance standpoint. I don't see this need for a bit of custom silicon going away anytime soon — especially within high-end enterprise-class storage systems."

Today, a lot of custom designs center around the PowerPC architecture, said Panasas' Welch. "You can put several cores onto a chip, as well as peripherals such as 10Gb Ethernet, and more," he said. "The PPC system-on-a-chip approach can have advantages in power consumption and cost."

Welch added that PPC-based systems are common in dedicated network processing appliances, and are gaining some ground in storage products.

"While a PPC system is technically an ASIC, it is put together using a functional building block approach that can be reliable and cost-effective," said Welch.

Specialty designs still exist for cache interfaces and internal fan out because array controllers require more I/O throughput and larger memory (cache) sizes than a standard server, said Barrera. "IBM's Power processors are particularly good at I/O, which makes the Power platform a good one for our high-end disk arrays," said Barrera.

BlueArc's Chip Blend

A good marriage of custom and standard chip technology comes from BlueArc, whose Titan products offer a glimpse of possible future storage development in the network-attached storage (NAS) space.

BlueArc's Titan uses field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to accelerate its NAS processing and deliver faster I/O performance, pairing the arrays with standard multi-core Intel processors.

The vendor claims it has addressed the tradeoffs between hard-coded chips and software running on CPUs by bringing both concepts together in a unique Hybrid-Core Architecture.

"This architecture takes advantage of both FPGAs and traditional multi-core CPUs to efficiently separate processes that normally compete for system resources," said Jeff Hill, BlueArc's director of marketing.

"FPGAs are similar to ASIC chips, but are less costly to produce and are easily upgradeable in the field," said Hill. "Also, ASIC development is expensive, time-consuming and inflexible."

Hill said the FPGAs in BlueArc's Hybrid-Core Architecture enable high-performance data movement, directory tree management, metadata processing and protocol handling.

"This allows data to be transferred between logical blocks in a parallel fashion, ensuring no conflicts or bottlenecks in the data path," said Hill. "In complementary fashion, the system's multi-core CPUs, unburdened by core file system functionality, handle system management, data management, virtualization and error handling."

Hill said all functions performed by the CPUs are done out of band from the data, further reducing contention. He claims this separation of data movement and management prevents competition for system resources, maintaining performance levels while supporting advanced file system functions.

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