Tier-1 Storage vs. Tier-2 Storage

It used to be that mid-range data centers could buy a storage system designed for that market and never worry about growing beyond that system’s capacity and performance capabilities. Now however, thanks to server virtualization, “big data” and cloud initiatives, almost every medium-sized business experiencing growth is a candidate to be a large consumer of storage I/O resources and storage capacity. As a result, many of these organizations are contemplating Tier-1 storage systems sooner than anticipated.

Tier-1 storage are systems which claim better performance, capacity, reliability, data services and manageability; all features that mid-range data centers need but may not be ready to afford. Mid-tier data centers are looking at the capabilities of Tier-1 storage vs. the affordability of Tier-2 storage and hoping that Tier-2 vendors will cross that chasm with their offerings.

The good news for these mid-range data center managers is that there are Tier-2 vendors already focused on making sure mid-range data centers don’t have to upgrade to Tier-1 storage systems. By harnessing the power of the latest Intel processors in controllers, leveraging the latest in high-speed storage bandwidth and drive technology to offer scalable, high performance mid-range storage, vendors are already accomplishing this goal. High performance, feature rich systems were once the sole domain of Tier-1 storage solutions. Now Tier-2 vendors are encroaching on Tier-1 capabilities and giving mid-range data center managers more choices in how they spend their storage budget.

Companies like PROMISE Technology have been able to leverage their vast storage manufacturing experience of supplying storage to system builders. They now bring these manufacturing efficiencies, while leveraging the step-level increase in capabilities of off the shelf storage equipment, to deliver systems that are causing storage managers to think twice about selecting a Tier-1 storage system.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 Performance

The applications used at the enterprise level demand maximum performance. What this meant historically was a monolithic, Tier-1 storage system which required a large upfront investment. These systems also tended to use proprietary ASICs and highly customized internal switching architectures. While parts of these infrastructures could be added as the Tier-1 storage system scales, most are intrinsic to the backplane which has to be available from day one. This part of the infrastructure is the most expensive, so while it may feel better to only add storage ports as needed, usually the fabric that those ports plug into must already be paid for and in place.

The challenge for Tier-1 storage vendors is that performance of off the shelf processors and connection technology has caught up with the proprietary designs of the legacy Tier-1 vendor. Tier-2 vendors like PROMISE are equipping their storage controllers with the latest Intel processors that deliver more performance than ever on a controller board.

Generating top performance is a function of drive ability, I/O bandwidth to the controller and its ability to move data to and from the storage devices. Tier-2 vendors are not shackled to the past investments in custom ASICs and switching architectures. Instead they can leverage new off the shelf technology like 6Gb/s SAS which provides up to 24Gb/s of I/O bandwidth, more than enough to keep up with the fastest of storage devices – including solid state. Those Tier-2 vendors with experience in storage systems manufacturing can quickly adopt these new technologies and give them to their customers. In the past this adoption allowed Tier-2 vendors to deliver performance that was only ‘close’ to the proprietary architectures of Tier-1 vendors. Now, thanks to relentless technology advances, the performance capabilities of many Tier-1 architectures can be surpassed without the cost burden.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 Capacity

Capacity scaling is another important ability of Tier-1 storage systems. Once again, most Tier-1 systems are delivered as big, empty boxes with storage later added. The fabric that these drives will connect into is often already in place. And while some systems will allow storage capacity to be added a frame at a time, for most the entire frame must be purchased with each increment.

Capacity demands of most data centers can be easily handled now, as long as the storage system supports a reasonable number of storage shelves while maintaining acceptable performance. The storage controllers have enough power to push a high number of drives. The challenge for Tier-2 vendors until recently was being able to give this capacity and still keep up high performance. Now again, thanks to advancements in processing and bandwidth, suppliers like PROMISE Technology can.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 Reliability

Reliability is also one of the key focuses for the Tier-1 storage vendor. These systems were designed to run mission critical applications that simply cannot go down or suffer data loss. They were designed in an era where there wasn’t a strong supporting cast of availability solutions. Once again, investments were made in overly redundant hardware and infrastructure to support that reliability, often using proprietary components.

Reliability now though has made its way to Tier-2 storage systems using off the shelf components, which allows vendors to keep costs down. In fact that redundancy has become a significant price advantage for Tier-2 storage vendors because it’s less expensive to have two off the shelf components than to have two proprietary components. Additionally, the reliability of eco-systems has improved; storage devices, power supplies, interface cards are all much more reliable than they were in years past. Finally, the systems that connect to storage are more reliable than ever and there is redundancy built into them as well. Virtualization hypervisors and applications also have hardware fault redundancy protection built into them. In short, reliability is handled throughout the application stack including the storage system. Tier-2 systems can offer the storage hardware reliability, as well as provide the cost economics that leave money left over to deliver reliability to the rest of the environment.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 Data Services

Data services were one of the biggest advantages for Tier-1 storage in the early days of enterprise storage. Capabilities like triple mirrors, replication of data and snapshots were first delivered on these types of systems. The problem for Tier-1 storage vendors though is that these capabilities have become so commonplace that many operating systems have them built-in for free. And certainly almost every storage system on the market, from low-end to high-end, either has these features built-in or can easily add them through a virtualization layer. Finally, as was the case with reliability, many applications, operating systems and hypervisors have many of these data services built-in too.

In the end the storage administrator needs the choice. Not all classes of data need services, why pay for services that are unused? Even if the service is “included” there is a fee associated. Nothing is really free. Also there is the overhead involved in implementing these services. However there are times where having the services available through the storage system is critical. With PROMISE’s VTrak x30 Series this is easily accomplished. Adding VTrak S3000 provides a low-cost way of meeting both requirements.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 Management

Manageability has always been a big focus for Tier-1 storage vendors. The goal of these systems is to offer tools that allow for the storage to be managed by fewer administrators. While most Tier-1 vendors have their own proprietary software application to manage their storage they also deal with the reality that most data centers have more than one type of storage system. It seems that every major Tier-1storage provider has purchased a third-party management product to help complete their offering. While storage management has not become a commodity, the number of available options has expanded greatly.

Tier-2 storage manufacturers like PROMISE Technology have added management software to their solutions as well. Classically this was something missing from this category of storage provider but now systems have added the ability to manage a group of storage devices with a single login or be able to create user level capabilities. And, as is the case with Tier-1 solutions, if something more robust is required to manage multiple storage suppliers or provide a server / hypervisor view of storage connectivity, a third-party utility can be added to these systems just like can be added to Tier-1 systems.

Tier-1 vs. Tier-2 – Is there a line to blur?

The reality may be that there is no line to blur between Tier-1 and Tier-2 storage. Tier-2 companies with a historical understanding of high quality manufacturing and integration of industry standard components can deliver most, if not all, the capabilities of their Tier-1 counterparts. In areas where there may still be a lack, third-party products can be added to compensate and the joint solution will still be a fraction of the cost of a “complete” Tier-1 solution.

PROMISE Technology is a client of Storage Switzerland

Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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