Clustered Storage Without the Price Tag

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IBRIX doesn’t want to build your data storage system. It wants to make your data storage system scale and perform better, or so the company claims.

Targeted primarily at Web 2.0 companies, including Internet service providers, content delivery networks, animation rendering and visual effects companies, IBRIX claims its Fusion software suite can help enterprises “independently grow capacity and increase throughput up to 50 times at the lowest cost and highest storage density possible.”

To find out whether IBRIX Fusion delivers on those promises, spoke with IBRIX customer Symplicity, which offers information technology solutions in the education and government sectors, runs the federal government’s main procurement portal,, and has provided career services software to about 900 universities worldwide.

A Simple Solution to a Simple Problem

Like many companies experiencing rapid growth in a relatively short space of time, Symplictity found it had outgrown its storage solution in late 2006. After taking a peak under the hood during low-performance periods, the tech team discovered that one of the primary (if not the primary) bottlenecks was its file system.

“For years, we’d run sort of a cluster of Web servers that all talked to various components of the infrastructure,” said Alok Dhir, Symplicity’s chief technology officer. “The Web servers were using shared storage, ranging from NFS to various other cluster file systems, and we found that was the bottleneck.”

However, knowing what the problem was and finding a solution were two separate challenges.

“It was not clear to us what we needed to do other than that something needed to be done,” Dhir said. “So we started surveying the landscape of clustered file systems. Instead of replicating files out to Web servers, which would considerably increase the management and administrative burden of the cluster, we wanted to maintain a central store of files that all the Web servers could access.”

In its search for a new scalable, reliable, high-performance, high-end clustered file system that would work in its all-Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) environment, and get rid of bottlenecks, Symplicity looked at and tested many different solutions. “There were even a couple products that we did actually install that wound up not working for us, primarily due to stability issues,” recalled Dhir.

Then Dhir decided to check out IBRIX and its software-only suite.

Bring Your Own Hardware

“I didn’t want a hardware/software solution,” he said. “I didn’t want something reaching so deep into my infrastructure that I needed to get a special rack to put their boxes in, which is what many of [IBRIX’s] competitors do. That wasn’t what we were looking for.

“We wanted something that would run on our existing [Dell] servers [and Dell SAN],” said Dhir. “I was happy to buy new servers for that product, but I didn’t want a whole other brand of hardware in there that I needed someone else to support for me. Let me buy what I buy. Don’t make me buy what you want to sell me.”

The fact that IBRIX is software only and certified by Dell, IBM (NYSE: IBM) and HP (NYSE: HPQ) on the server side, and by EMC (NYSE: EMC), Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA), Hitachi, HP and Dell EqualLogic on the storage side, is in large part what made IBRIX so attractive to Dhir — and to a number of other customers.

“Regardless of whether a customer has a few terabytes or a large number of terabytes or even petabytes, what IBRIX provides the customer is the ability to use the hardware or architecture of their choice, or even in some cases to re-purpose existing hardware, to store file data,” said Milan Shetti, the president of IBRIX. “And that goes a long way in reducing capital expenses.”

The main thing that had stopped Dhir from looking at IBRIX sooner was that he thought he couldn’t afford Fusion. “We weren’t looking to spend a million dollars on a clustered file system, and you can do that very easily, depending on who you go with,” he said.

But after his various attempts to find a solution, Dhir decided to ask his Dell rep (Dell being an IBRIX technology partner) if he could arrange a meeting with IBRIX to learn a bit more.

In June 2007 the two companies met — and Dhir discovered that the IBRIX Fusion was more affordable than he thought. A month later, Symplicity had deployed the IBRIX Fusion file system on its Dell PowerEdge 1950 servers, which managed 10 terabytes of EMC Clariion CX3-20 storage — for around $42,000, which included 30 clients and three years of support. And the solution, which Dhir said was easy to install, has “been running fantastically,” he said.

“The file system is no longer a bottleneck for us,” he said. “We have excellent visibility into what it’s up to and what kind of utilization it’s at at any point in time, which was another key criteria for me, which was not the case with a competing product that we had tried. It’s been wonderful.”

Support When You Really Need It

The only snag came when Symplicity tried to upgrade to a newer release of IBRIX Fusion in March of this year. “And that was a failure,” said Dhir. The system would run for a while “and then it would kind of freeze up,” he said, which wreaked a fair amount of havoc — and raised some doubts about IBRIX.

However, even though IBRIX was unable to fix the bugs (which Shetti said were unique to Symplicity’s environment) at the time, Symplicity decided to stay with IBRIX, reverting back to an earlier release.

Why did Symplicity decide to stay with IBRIX, especially after abandoning other clustered file systems that had also had issues? According to Dhir, it was the customer service and technical support he received from IBRIX during the crisis that made the difference.

“I would not be an IBRIX customer today if not for the support that we received.”

— Alok Dhir

“I would not be an IBRIX customer today if not for the support that we received,” said Dhir. “For four days I was on the phone with very senior people on their end while their technicians were working on our problems, collaborating with my technicians.”

Instead of making Dhir and his team all sorts of promises, IBRIX was honest about the problems, Dhir said. And the support Symplicity received “was phenomenal,” he added. “That made me trust that they were worth staying with, because at the end of the day, if you can’t trust your clustered file system that you always keep running, what are you doing?

“As a software company ourselves, we know software has bugs,” he explained. “You are going to have problems. I don’t care who you are. No matter how much testing and QA you do, you will have problems. What separates a good company from a bad company, from where I’m sitting, is how you react when those problems occur. And that’s why we’re still [an IBRIX] customer.”

Today, some 17 months after the initial install, Symplicity has 20 terabytes of primary storage running through its IBRIX file system and more than 100 clients. And Dhir said there has been no reduction in performance. As for those bugs, IBRIX has since fixed them with the release of IBRIX Fusion 4.2 software (which 80 percent of its more than 200 installed customers now use), though Symplicity is going to wait until after the busy fall season to upgrade.

An Analyst’s Take

Clustered file system expert Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Storage IO, is also a fan of IBRIX, though he has some reservations.

“What’s appealing about the IBRIX Fusion is its ability to scale in terms of either performance or capacity, or both, using different types of storage devices and servers while supporting both NFS and CIFS concurrently from the same system in a hardware-independent manner or without putting limited constraints on the size of file systems,” he said.

Schulz also likes IBRIX’s ability to work with off-the-shelf servers, including blade servers and efficient high-density entry and mid-range storage, which he said makes for very cost-effective platforms.

And he is a fan of IBRIX’s licensing model. “Unlike so many software-based solutions that have elephant or Oracle-sized pricing, I like how IBRIX gives you the ability to license based on storage capacity space, or on performance, so that you are not penalized if you need lots of low- cost bulk storage, as would be the case with a traditional high-performance and hardware-centric file and storage serving cluster. Or, if you do not need a lot of storage capacity, [but] need to support a large number of concurrent small random or large sequential files processed, you are not penalized on a capacity basis.”

As for reservations, Schulz said he would like to see IBRIX “extend out its data management features to be more on par with mainstream traditional NAS vendors like NetApp, EMC or BlueArc, who have feature-rich capabilities.” However, he noted that that could require a third licensing tier for those who wanted the features, and possibly “relief” for those who didn’t want or need them.

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Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff is a business and technology writer and a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum. She also runs Schiff & Schiff Communications, a marketing firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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