SBB needs a new eco system

I have to confess that in true tekinerd style, I actually have an SBB storage chassis in my garage; hence the reason I’m writing about it I guess. Thanks to my good friends at AIC, I’ve actually had one of their first prototype SBB chassis for nearly 2 years now (still here if you need it back guys). Why? We actually built and demo’d a 4G and 8G Fibre Channel SBB based storage solution based on an AMD Opteron running Linux with a RAIDcore host based RAID stack back in 2007-2008 timeframe working with some very talented engineers in Minneapolis.

I knew I liked SBB when our first proto fired up and we were able to demonstrate pretty quickly without building a chassis that our controllers worked. We had infact designed a specialty enclosure for a military application, but the chassis that AIC provided us at the time was not only ideal as a bring up chassis, but also as a demonstration to ourselves that we could also offer a commercial version of the product using an off the shelf chassis. That was the cool part. Develop for one chassis, and bring up in another commercially available chassis. Even cooler however was that this was a full Linux server as well. We could turn different host interfaces and switch between basic SAN and NAS (or both) functionality pretty easily.

Storage bridge bay, or SBB, is now at revision 2.0. It all started in 2006 when Dell, EMC, LSI and Intel banded together to create the SBB Working Group. Many other vendors have since joined in. To date however, only a handful of vendors have adopted with the orginal intent in mind of an open platform, with the majority of the market staying on the disk array side with proprietary or what I’d call non-open SBB solutions. Examples of proprietary solutions are HP MSA and EVA, EMC, NetApp and so on with only Dell, Xyratex, Xiotech and a few whitebox manufacturers such as AIC and SuperMicro adopting SBB and in most cases, as one more line item they offer versus whole hearted adoption.

So if it’s so cool, why hasn’t it proliferated?

The answer lies in the motives behind SBB and the end user value equation. As far as motives are concerned, several large OEMs like SBB as they can drive increased competition amongst the storage array vendor community. On the end user side, SBB has demonstrated no real benefits with the versions of products that are available beyond what you can get today with the proprietary versions. Let’s face it, SBB to an end user, there is no benefit in an SBB approach if there are no well developed open market controllers to plug, play and match with.

Several other factors to consider:

  1. No one is offering truly unbundled SBB products i.e. the storage controller comes separate from the chassis. They are still selling it like traditional storage arrays.
  2. There is a 99% chance that different vendor controllers and chassis have not been tested with each other i.e. its up to the end user to check it all out. End users don’t have time for this.
  3. There has been no demonstrated cost benefit of SBB to end users yet – it appears to help the OEMs in the bargaining powers with the storage providers more than end users at this point.
  4. The storage vendors themselves are operating on such slim margins that their incentive to move to SBB is low.

What does this mean for SBB?

The strength of SBB is not in its ability to replace existing entry level or mid-range disk arrays. As it is an open standard, it fosters more innovation by allowing many more smaller volume vendors and developers to create a value add controller without having to go through the rigmarole of developing a whole chassis solution. Further, the fact that both Intel and AMD provide development kits to select partners to be able to put a whole PC or server architecture on an SBB blade allows a whole lot more than just plain RAID level storage functions.

This is where the “storage” in SBB becomes a little cloudier as there is no reason why an SBB controller blade could in fact be a complete NAS or a virtual server head running several end user processes as well. It could also be a virtualized storage controller with complete cluster capabilities using off the shelf operating systems versus the closed software of today’s SBB controllers using the same identical hardware and just a software change.

The industry needs to wake up to the possibilities of SBB not as a replacement for what they have but as a platform for the next evolution of intelligent storage devices.

A few suggestions to the SBB community from someone who’s tried to make it fly:

  • Increase the focus on interoperability – create a lab like we did in the networking community and offer a certification sticker for interoperable SBBs components.
  • Create a software developer eco-system for the Intel and AMD reference designs to create more innovation and differentiation with today’s RAID only solutions.
  • Consider creating a server splinter group that focuses on developing virtual machine aware derivatives of SBB that focus more on server-storage solutions…. A Modular Server Rack (MSR) type solution.

Overall, SBB is a great start to break the proprietary stranglehold of the traditional storage vendors and drive storage to the next level, but it takes more than just a hardware standard to do it… it requires an eco-system of next generation thinkers.