User solves data backup problem with desktop SAN

One small financial consulting firm takes a new approach to backing up its data on disk, using software from a new startup called RevStor.

Two startups are offering companies a way to turn unused disk space into networked storage.

RevStor LLC's SANware software uses storage on servers, desktops and laptops to create a networked grid. The other newcomer, Seanodes Inc., recently started shipping its Exanodes software that allows DAS on servers to function as a pool of networked storage.

Open-E GMBH, a German company that has been around for a while, also has a new software application to let users create storage area networks (SAN) out of DAS using memory sticks.

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So far, these products are aimed at small companies, but the concept isn't all that different from some networked storage products on the market. iSCSI SAN vendor LeftHand Networks Inc. has a similar offering with its virtual appliance product. Slicing data up as a data protection method is also a feature of NEC Corp.'s Hydrastor backup and archive grid, and the theory behind a globally ambitious open source grid project called Cleversafe.

But the newcomers are starting with customers who aren't traditional networked storage users. One RevStor early adopter is using it in lieu of tape for data protection at his financial consulting firm that keeps around 1 TB of data spread over 10 PCs.

"I wanted to get away from tape backups," said the consulting company's owner Doug Lee, who did not want to name the firm because of client sensitivities to press coverage. But as a small firm with just under 1 TB of data, Lee wanted something less expensive than even the lowest end disk arrays and less complicated than having to network small drives.

Lee said he heard about RevStor from a friend of his, who works as a chief information officer, and signed up for the 30-day free trial the company offers. He tested the software for a few weeks using personal photos and video files before putting it into production at his company.

SANware runs natively on Windows (the other software offerings mentioned above run primarily on Linux-based servers) and relies on agents installed on each device the user wants to become part of the new storage pool. The agents connect back to a floating centralized management node for monitoring and reporting, but otherwise run as a parallel process, splitting data up into chunks according to how many devices are available. The software also deduplicates and applies AES 256-bit encryption to each slice of data before sending it over the wire.

Lee said it has allowed his company to spread data that had once been stuck on a single machine and tapes over his company's PCs that include workstations, as well as two "beefed up" Windows machines that act as file servers for the company. Lee said his company has replaced tape while spreading data logically and geographically over 10 devices without purchasing new hardware.

During his testing phase, Lee said he tried out the upload/download process for the data slices and reported it caused no performance hit, despite the fact that it is performing data deduplication and encryption in software.

"The software is aware of the CPU and memory usage on each of the devices it sees," Lee said. "It will wait for a point in time when your computer is idle, and it will avoid using devices that are often disconnected from the network for storage of data," though it will still crawl them for data to upload to the network. He said in his tests of moving a 1 GB file between two servers using a dedicated 100 Mbps Ethernet connection versus uploading the same 1 GB file to the RevStor network, the RevStor process was "appreciably faster." How much bandwidth the application takes up can be throttled, as well.

But, will RevStor's software scale for shops looking to use it on more than 1 TB of storage? RevStor chief technology officer Russ Felker Felker admitted one early beta tester experienced performance issues because of a too-frequent crawl window set to check a laptop's file system every five minutes. "That was too frequent, since the software will wait for low CPU utilization on the computer to crawl. It didn't have time to do that and then make its next five minute window," he said. "It's not meant to be a CDP engine." Changing the crawl frequency to once a day, like a traditional backup, solved the problem, Felker said.

According to an early reseller of the product, Mike Smith of Momentum Data Services, SANware has been a tough sell. "We haven't had the traction we'd hoped for," said Smith, who runs SANware in his shop. "People just don't believe it will do what it says it will do."

Enterprise IT managers can be forgiven for being skeptical of a claim of high-performing encryption and data deduplication software, which flies in the face of most conventional wisdom in the market. And, Felker admits, the company hasn't had much opportunity yet to test the software in large real-world configurations. The largest in-house test of the software was on a 100 TB preoptimized system, Felker said, and RevStor doesn't have user references available from shops larger than Lee's.

Lee, however, said after six months of using the software, he's a believer. "I'm hoping to see them come out with the ability to designate one off-site machine as a DR repository for everything," he said. It's technically possible today, but requires more networking expertise than Lee has at his company, and he said he'd like to see it become an automated feature of the product.

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