Oracle boss Larry Ellison has personally backed Pillar Data Systems, a startup, which aims to produce a combined NAS and SAN device with some eye-catching attributes. In fact Ellison is the only investor.

Pillar's technology is based on cheap PC hard drives and clever software and is meant to store corporate data more effectively and more cheaply that the standard drive array-based products from Network Appliance and EMC.

It also combines network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area network (SAN) functionality to serve both data blocks (SAN) and files (NAS) to attached servers.

Pillar began selling its Axiom product earlier this year. Pillar Data, with its president and CEO MIchael Workman, has had 325 employees write 2.5 million lines of code. This work started in July, 2001.

Ellison's intent is to simplify and cheapen storage so that clever software can use commodity hardware to provide enterprise-class functionality. One way of doing this is to place the fastest-needed data on the most responsive part of a disk drive; it's outer tracks which move fastest under the read heads.

The slowest-access data is put on the slowest tracks of the drive, near its centre, and medium access speed data is placed on a drive's middle tracks.

This provides a supposed three tiers of storage, which relates to information lifecycle management ideas (ILM) on one device. No one else is taking this approach. Different tiers in ILM schemes from EMC or StorageTek mean different classes of disk: Fibre Channel (FC) or Serial ATA for example.

In fact Pillar will enhance this by having either SATA or FC drives available.

A 12TB Pillar systems costs $100,000 and can be laid out in less than a day, the company says. A somewhat comparable EMC system holds 6TB and costs $500,000. Axiom systems can scale from 3 to 300TB.

The NAS functionality is available now. SAN functionality is coming in July. Customers should be able to have just NAS functionality, just SAN or both simultaneously.

But a Symmetrix DMX offers more than fast access. How does a Pillar Data system provide disk reliability, high availability and data protection? How is it managed? Is it compliant with SNIA management standards?

Building blocks
The company states that its Axiom Storage systems consist of management software and three hardware building blocks - Pilots, Slammers and Bricks - all designed for high availability and reliability.

The management software is said to allow system administrators to allocate storage resources, specify Quality of Service, and define storage automation parameters. According to Pillar it will:-

• Simplify data management with policy-based controls
• Provision with an easy-to-use interface
• Protect data with Snap FS, Snap LUN, and Volume
• Receive automatic notification of critical status changes and events
• Enable centralized management of storage infrastructure through integration with leading management framework software vendors.

A single Pilot Policy Controller supplies the interface to configure and manage a Pillar Axiom Storage system, allocating resources, specifying QoS, and providing for backup services.

• Two independent control units operate in an active/passive mode
• Data protection tools include write-only deltas Snap FS and Snap LUN snapshots, or full copies with Pillar's Volume Copy
• Control all storage management and data protection features using a single policy-based framework through a Web-based GUI or scriptable CLI
• Collect and report hundreds of system statistics
• Provide maintenance, monitoring, call-home and other support functions.

It can also be used to predict storage demands.

The Slammer Storage Controller is a high-performance data manager and mover, available as either a SAN or NAS front end. It virtualises the available storage pool and has 4 GigE or 2Gbit/s Fibre Channel ports.

• Up to four high-performance, high-reliability data movers and managers provide non-stop data access
• SAN and NAS functionality scales horizontally with dual active/active control units, up to four Slammers per Axiom
• Available cache, up to 24 GB per Slammer, maximizes performance in many applications
• Battery-backed write cache is mirrored between control units to ensure data integrity in the unlikely event of control unit failure
• Scale performance within the Pillar Axiom system by adding Slammers without incurring additional software licensing fees.

The Brick has up to 32 storage enclosures providing the high-performance storage for the common SAN/NAS storage pool.

• Any-to-any relationships between Bricks and Slammers through connection to the internal storage system fabric
• Dual RAID controllers and local cache in each brick for scalable I/O and minimized system impact of localized rebuilds
• Dual-ported access to SATA or FC drives for full data path redundancy
• Unique SATA dual porting, power control and error recovery logic for enterprise availability

Slammers and Bricks are inter-connected by a high-speed switched fabric.

Pillar says that release 2 of its product will support up to 64 Bricks per system. Data protectction is based on disk-to-disk backup.

What do we think?
Under Ellison Oracle has pursued a strategy of commoditising virtually everything Oracle needs to run. It is pushing industry-standard Intel CPUs, cheap-cum-free Linux operating systems and provides its own clustering to enable customers to not have to buy expensive cluster hardware.

Now it appears Ellison wants to commoditise storage as well. (The only thing he doesn't want to commoditise is the Oracle database and application suite - but that's another story.)

Pillar Data Systems has a limited channel with limited presence around the world. It has only just come out of so-called stealth mode. Its product is still under development. We suggest you view it as similar to ExaGrid, Xiotech or 3Par but with less of a track record than these suppliers. For now it is a supplier to watch at the edge of your storage radar screen.