Analysis: The end of the line for Xserve RAID

Like every other Mac IT administrator, I awoke Tuesday to both Twitter and my e-mail rather busily reporting the replacement of the Xserve RAID with RAID boxes from Promise Technology. Indeed, Apple has discontinued the Xserve RAID, opting instead to have Promise’s RAID systems qualified for use with the newly released Xsan 2.

This development comes more than four years after Apple entered the server storage market with the original Xserve RAID. At the time, the product was a solid RAID, especially from a dollars-per-GB view. Its platform neutrality attracted a lot of companies to Apple hardware that would have otherwise ignored the company’s offerings. And while it wasn’t a player in the EMC mission-critical five-nines world, the Xserve RAID was a solid storage device for business-critical needs. It wasn’t perfect, but it was solid, and I, along with many other IT administrators looked forward to seeing it evolve.

The funny thing was, that evolution never really happened. Oh, there were some changes to the fiber channel controllers, and the capacity increased fairly regularly, but in too many ways, the Xserve RAID available at the start of this week was the same one available in 2004. It stayed static, as the rest of the industry passed it by in, literally, every way but the logo on the box.

The Xserve RAID remained a parallel ATA device, when the rest of the world was running towards Serial ATA, or SATA. It kept its “two 7-disk RAIDS in a common cabinet” design, while the rest of the world moved to cabinets that not only held more drives, but let you use all of them in a single hardware RAID configuration. (You could not set up all 14 drives on an Xserve RAID into a single hardware RAID. You had to set up two, and then use either external hardware, or software RAID from there.) The world moved into RAID 6, which allows for two drive failures while the Xserve RAID stayed put at RAID 5, which allows for one. The world moved toward full support for things like SNMP, Web configs instead of fat clients, and so forth. The Xserve RAID? Spotty SNMP support and fat Java clients.

So in the end, Apple had three options… a massive re-engineering of the Xserve RAID to catch up to everyone else, an even more massive re-engineering of the Xserve RAID to get ahead of everyone else, or kill the Xserve RAID, sell off the inventory, and work with outside suppliers to qualify their systems for things like Xsan and Final Cut Studio. Apple chose the third option, and in the long run, that’s probably going to be the best one for the company.

The storage market is a cutthroat one, based around creating neat ways to sell the same drives from the same manufacturers. There’s very little Apple could really bring to the table that wasn’t there from a dozen other vendors. The only place UI design really mattered was in the configuration utility, and that was never a paragon of good UI anyway. So other than an Apple logo on the front, and automatic acceptance into Apple enterprise support contracts, there really wasn’t much Apple could do noticeably better than everyone else.

So what’s the end result for IT? Well, a little bad—it complicates support contracts. But there’s also a lot of good.

Look at the Promise RAID feature set: Both controllers can be Active over the entire RAID, something the Xserve RAID could not do, so you have better redundancy. You’ll also find more drive slots, RAID 6, and more management options (instead of just a Java client and “meh” SNMP support). You have an embedded Web server, SNMP, Telnet, an audible alarm, and command line interface support. So you can easily manage it from any machine, not just one with the right tools installed. You can mix and match SATA and Serial Attached SCSI, or SAS, in the same cabinet, so if you need high speed and low cost storage, you can get both from the same unit—SAS and SATA are no longer all or nothing choices. If you don’t need the RAID to be qualified for Xsan, then instead of the 750GB drives you get from Apple, you can buy one from Promise, or a Promise VAR with 1TB drives in each bay, so you start with 16TB of raw storage. Even with RAID 6, you still have 14TB of raw storage to start with. Since Apple isn’t building the RAIDs, only working with the company to qualify it for things like Xsan, the chances that other vendors can get in on this action is much higher, since they are no longer Apple competitors, but potential partners.

In the end, Apple’s Xserve RAID move doesn’t change much for me. I made my last Xserve RAID purchase some time ago, and wasn’t planning on repeating repeating it. The limitations of the Xserve RAID were too great for it to be much of a consideration anywhere, and once it no longer won on price? Buh-Bye. And who was I looking at heavily instead? Promise.

Are those who just bought a bunch of Xserve RAID’s real happy right now? No, but then that’s life in IT. You buy a bunch of stuff, and it’s obsolete before the purchase order is paid out. As for me, I’m glad that Apple is once again selling a RAID I’ll want to buy.

[John C. Welch is a Unix/Open Systems Administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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