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Volume 6, Number 27 -- July 15, 2008

Sun Upgrades and Extends Thumper Array Lineup

Published: July 15, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Nearly two years ago, Sun Microsystems and its recently reacquired chief technology officer and co-founder, Andy Bechtolsheim, launched what they had hoped would be a new kind of hybrid product called a data server as part of the delivery of its initial "Galaxy" class of X64-based servers. The first product, code-named "Thumper" and sold as the X4500 Data Server, has had success in niche markets thus far, and Sun is hoping to do better with an expanded Thumper line launched this week.

The original Thumper data server was a two-socket Opteron-based Galaxy server with a huge amount of cheap storage and lots of I/O bandwidth. Specifically, the Thumper array included six eight-port SATA disk controllers on the motherboard, which provided up to 28 disk drives running off a single instance of the Solaris 10 operating system and its Zettabyte File System. The beauty of Thumper is that not only could it pack a lot of cheap storage in a 4U form factor with 2 GB/sec of sustained I/O bandwidth from the disk drives to the memory of the unit, but because ZFS implements an alternative to RAID 5 and RAID 6 hardware-based data protection called RAID Z, which is implemented in software inside ZFS, Thumper arrays cut out the expense of a RAID 5 or RAID 6 disk controller. The difference is a silly old thing we call profit margin--something that Sun is desperately in need of these days.

According to Raymond Austin, group manager for storage product management at Sun, the company has shipped about 140 petabytes--that is 140,000 terabytes--of Thumper capacity thus far. With volume discounts, Sun said at launch time two years ago that it could deliver configured Thumper arrays at about $2 per GB or less, so that should have worked out to somewhere around $280 million or so in cumulative sales to date by my math. This isn't a billion dollar product line just yet, obviously. Which is why Sun is changing its tack with the Thumper products just a little.

First, this week the company is launching the X4540 data server, which supports quad-core Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices (compared to dual-core Opterons in the original Thumper), PCI Express peripheral links (instead of PCI-X), and other chipset tweaks in the motherboard to improve performance; it also supports up to 64 GB of main memory. The X4540 array still has 48 SATA ports, and it still supports 250 GB, 500 GB, 750 GB, and 1 TB disk drives; it delivers 3 GB/sec of bandwidth from disks to memory and 2 GB/sec of bandwidth from the disks to the network interfaces on the motherboard. More importantly, with the fat disks and the new prices on the X4540, Sun can deliver capacity for $1.20 per GB. The X4540 is now being pitched as a Sun Fire server and less as a data server, and supports Solaris 10, Linux, and Windows. The base X4540 lists at $22,000; the exact configuration of that machine was not available at press time.

Now, having up to 48 TB of capacity in a 4U space is not enough capacity for a lot of workloads, and more importantly, not everyone wants to implement a Solaris-ZFS data server. Which is why Sun is launching a set of JBOD disk arrays called the J series in the Thumper family of products. (JBOD is short for Just a Box of Disks, as opposed to something more sophisticated.) These J arrays use the same packaging as other Galaxy servers, but instead of having a server motherboard, they have brackets for SATA-II or SAS disk drives and links back to the servers they can be attached to. They can also be daisy chained to the new X4540 data servers to provide disk expansion. In fact, up to 10 J4500 arrays can be linked to a single X4540 using SAS interfaces.

There are three J series JBOD arrays. The J4200 is a 2U chassis with space for two to 48 disks, which can be SATA-II drives or SAS drives; capacity is 14.4 TB maximum for SAS drives and 48 TB for SATA-II drives, and on heavily configured machines, Sun says it can get the cost down to $1 per GB for a configured J4200. The JBOD unit has three 3 GB/sec SAS ports, and can link back to an X4540 running Solaris and ZFS or to another server using a SAS RAID controller (if customers want to go that route). Solaris, Linux, and Windows servers are all certified to use the J series JBODs as arrays, and Solaris shops do not have to use ZFS--they can opt for SAS RAID implemented in hardware if that is what they prefer. The base J4200 comes with two 250 GB SATA-II arrays and two power supplies; it costs $3,140.

The J4400 JBOD is a 4U chassis that has room for up to 192 SAS or SATA-II disk arrays--room that is possible once you take the motherboard our of a Thumper array and make it a box of disks instead of a data server. The J4400 has an aggregate I/O bandwidth of 72 GB/sec and has four SAS host links and two SAS expansion ports. The base J4400 comes with a dozen 500 GB SATA-II drives and costs $8,490. With a dozen 73 GB SAS drives (which are more reliable than SATA-II drives), the machine costs $7,410. That's for only 876 GB of capacity, of course, which works out to $8.46 per GB, which is pretty pricey compared to the SATA-II variant, which comes in at $1.42 per GB for a 6 TB unit.

The J4500 is akin to the X4540, except the Opteron motherboard is missing and up to four units can be daisy chained together to deliver up to 192 disk drives in a single array. The J4500 only supports SATA-II disks, too. The base J4500 is a 4U chassis with room for 48 drives. A 24 TB unit (that's with all 48 drives inside using 500 GB disks) costs $32,960, or $1.37 per GB; using 1 TB disks, the price rises to $60,960, but the cost per GB falls to $1.27 per GB.

The J4200 is shipping now, says Austin, and the J4400, J4500 and X4540 will be shipping within a month. Austin adds that all of these products will be able to have flash-based storage modules snapped into the slots where SAS and SATA-II disks are currently slotted when Sun makes these flash add-ons available later this year.


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