The new Alacritech ANX 1500 box pushes disk utilization from 25% to 100%, with no cut in performance

Lucas Mearian

January 11, 2011 (Computerworld)

Alacritech, best known for its TCP/IP offload network interface cards, today released its first network-attached storage (NAS) acceleration appliance, which boasts the ability to increase file transfer performance by three or more times.

Alacritech’s ANX 1500 network file system (NFS) appliance uses a combination of solid state drives (SSD) and DRAM, along with specialized firmware, to cache NFS v3 data and metadata and relieve NAS engines of the task.

The ANX 1500 reduces the number of hard drives that need to be deployed in a high-performance file serving environment.

Today, large enterprises often employ a practice known as disk “short stroking,” deploying massive numbers of disk drives while accessing data only on the edge of drive platters. By accessing only the outer parameters of the drive, the read-write heads need to move shorter distances and read-write performance improves dramatically.

Alacritech claims the ANX 1500 pays for itself “faster than any other storage solution” and provides by far the lowest cost per operations per second (OPS).

For example, a single ANX 1500, with 4TB of SSDs, can deliver 120,000 NFS operations per second (OPS) for about $110,000, and only requires about one-fifth of the NAS infrastructure that would otherwise be needed for such performance. Base ANX 1500 pricing starts at $70,000.

“Companies have been cobbling together solutions that require more and more drives, yet result in unpredictable and poor performance, greater complexity, increased latency and reduced control,” said Larry Boucher, CEO of Alacritech. “They also risk data loss, have to turn ownership of their data over to outsiders, and in the end, pay more for their trouble. What this will allows you to do is take disks from 25% utilization to 100% utilization, but at the same time keep the same performance.”

According to Boucher, the ANX 1500 appliance accelerates responses to requests from clients using NFS v3, lowering application response time for users, by intelligently distinguishing between front-end sharable performance cache and back-end intelligent NAS. The process allows for the fastest retrieval of the most active or used data via cache, he added.

“Our testing to date confirms that metadata caching performance on the Alacritech ANX 1500 is quite powerful,” said Steve Kowalski, executive director of systems engineering at Sony Imageworks, in a statement. “Based upon these results, the ANX 1500 has the potential to open up both new and interesting economies of scale.”

Sony, which is primarily a NetApp NAS user, has yet to use its ANX 1500 in a live environment, but in a test environment in front of four NAS nodes from Isilon Systems.

Alacritech funded development of the ANX 1500 largely through $34 million in venture capital funding raised over the past several years. The San Jose-based company was founded in 1997 by Boucher, who also founded host-bus adapter vendor Adaptec and Auspex Systems, which invented the first NAS systems.

In the early part of this century, Alacritech sold network interface cards and TCP/IP offload engines for Window-based file systems. By relieving the network-attached storage systems’ controllers of the TCP/IP burden, throughput was increased.

Microsoft settled a lawsuit with the company in 2005. Under the settlement, Microsoft was barred from using Alacritech’s TCP offload technology in its Vista OS. Microsoft later licensed the technology.

Most NAS acceleration technology sold today owes some part of its IP to Alacritech, according to Jeff Boles, a senior analyst with the Taneja Group. That has allowed Alacritech to not only maintain a revenue stream over the past decade, but also to invest in developing acceleration technology for NFS systems.

“Some of this protocol acceleration stuff looks particularly interesting when it’s applied to NFS,” Boles said. “There’s actually some additional IP besides the typical TCP/IP offload that’s commonly recognized as a technology in the industry. Some of this IP helps scale up or scale out the handling of NFS traffic across multi-core processors. So it is really interesting about what you can do with NFS not just on the device level but in the network and across shared systems.”

One of biggest bottlenecks of NAS systems today is how the NFS protocol is handled, according to Boles.

A NAS head or controller can run out of throughput handling NFS operations. Users of Alacritech’s appliance were able to push 500,000 NFS operations per second and it only used 10% of the box’s CPU cycles, Boles said. “Which suggests it has a whole lot further to go,” he said.

“If this is any indication, maybe you could push this to a couple of million NFS operations,” he continued. “That’s going to do better than any caching technology we currently have, and they have all the caching technology currently out there.”