Crossroads Pushing VTL Solution to System i Customers
June 16, 2009 Alex Woodie
There is a resurgence of interest in delivering virtual tape library (VTL) solutions to System i shops, and one of the companies driving that resurgence is Crossroads Systems. Crossroads develops and sells a VTL appliance called the Virtual TapeServer (VTS) that offers close integration with the IBM i OS server (Power Systems). An OEM to tier-one storage providers for many years, the Austin, Texas, firm is now counting on the VTS to help drive its new sales strategy.
Crossroads has a long history in the enterprise storage market. Much of its business has been based around its core technology, the Router Messaging Interface. Crossroads says RMI improves performance and security in SANs and other enterprise storage architectures by providing TCP/IP-like routing capabilities to storage systems built on technologies such as Fibre Channel, which otherwise lack routing capabilities and therefore require bigger processors and more electricity to move the same amount of data. RMI is built into practically every Crossroads product, including its Virtual TapeServer (VTS) line.
While Crossroads has carved a comfortable niche for itself with RMI and other development efforts, it hasn’t received the type of recognition that one might expect for a technology leader. That’s because it has been content to be the OEM behind tier-one storage providers like EMC, Hewlett-Packard, StorageTek (part of Sun Microsystems and, soon, Oracle) and Quantum.
Today Crossroads is trying to bust out of the supporting cast and take a leading role that’s more visible to the audience. “We found that our OEM partners, great as they are and well intentioned as they are, don’t necessarily represent the customer requirements adequately to a third-tier kind of a business like ours,” Crossroads president and CEO Rob Sims tells IT Jungle.
Instead of asking Crossroads to develop technology that would help the customer, its OEM partners too often asked for enhancements that only helped the OEM. “That’s not a good place to be when the OEM then decides, ‘We’re moving on to a new technology,'” Sims says. “So we want to understand a lot more where customer needs and demands are.”
The VTS is a big part of Crossroads’ push to wean itself off the OEM teat and build a brand new sales model, which includes direct selling, but mostly sales through channel partners. And a big target of the VTS sales push is the Power Systems market. The company in Reno, Nevada, earlier this spring to attend the COMMON conference, where it reported that interest in its products was high.
‘Purpose-Built’ for AS/400s
Crossroads has over a decade of experience working with the AS/400. If you happened to run into an EMC Symmetrix shop back in the 2003 timeframe, you would have found the data connection cards in the big storage arrays were built by Crossroads.
AS/400 (i5) shops have been using Crossroads VTS since the fall of 2006. But more recently, the company has really ramped up its development effort, in just the last 18 months, as it looked to capitalize on the VTL opportunity. “We started looking at specifically how we can become a purpose-built data protection solution for the Power System server,” says Glenn Haley, Crossroads product manager.
Like nearly all VTL offerings, the Crossroads VTS emulates IBM LTO tape drives and libraries. This simplifies integration with the i OS environments. Backups, either through system save commands or backup products like BRMS, Tivoli Storage Manager, or third-party products, write directly to disks spinning in the VTS. The backup can reside permanently on the VTS’ internal or external storage, replicated to a second VTS device, or moved to a real tape library for archiving. Connectivity is handled through either Fibre Channel (recommended) or SCSI interfaces.
Crossroads offer three VTS appliances. Smaller businesses would opt for the UniFlex-LX device, which scales up to 1.5 TB of RAID 10-protected storage and starts at under $17,000. Larger businesses might go for the OmniFlex-SX, which start at about $35,000 and scale up to 5.25 TB of storage. The largest enterprises might choose the OmniFlex-CX, which can utilize external storage arrays from any validated storage provider.
Crossroads also offers two add-ons for its VTS line of products. This includes Instant DR, which is basically a replication engine that moves data among two or more VTS appliances across a network, and costs $3,500 per server. There is also Secure VTS, which provides AES 256 encryption (with cipher-block chains) and key management capabilities, and costs $12,000 per server.
Management of Crossroads VTS environments is handled through a Web interface. From here, customers can manage multiple media pools with different retention policies. The interface also handles connectivity to back-end physical tape, including volume stacking.
What Differentiates VTS
The capability to work with external storage arrays is a key differentiator for Crossroads, according to Sims. “We found customers might have purchased a cabinet or a system from a vendor, and they have a relationship, say with Hitachi, that provides them with their disk and disk management environment,” Sims says. “Having the capability to expand on their existing relationship without bringing in a third-party disk array that now has to have maintenance and different management has been a very big benefit, especially at the enterprise. It’s not as critical at the entry level. But when you start getting into these large shops, they’ve got major vendor contracts.”
The way that Crossroads prices its VTS offering is also different from most VTL vendors. Most VTL vendors charge customers for how much data they store on the VTS device. But Crossroads charges customers primarily by how many virtual tape drives they are using. Customers get a certain amount of storage when they buy their VTS unit, and they can always purchase more storage from Crossroads, or use external storage. But adding another virtual tape drive to the equation will cost extra. On the flip side, VTS allows virtual cartridges to grow to an unlimited length.
The capability to perform an IPL from the VTS device is another factor that differentiates Crossroads, according to Haley. “We can perform a re-IPL, or an alternate IPL type D, for all those SAVESYS type operations, option 21 entire system saves,” he says. “You can make the virtual tape server an alternate IPL so that you can recover the entire system image from us as a dedicated appliance. This is a very key point because not all competitors have the capability of doing this. It probably revolves around the fact that they are not keeping the file system structure intact.”
The company also claims that, because it emulates newer LTO 4 tape drives, data transfer speeds are greater with its VTS than competing VTL makers who emulate older LTO 1 tape.
Data de-duplication is a hot area right now (see the multi-billion-dollar battle over de-duplication leader Data Domain), and this may be one area where Crossroads lacks functionality found in other VTL offerings on the System i box. However, Crossroads does provide data compression capabilities that reduce data capacities by up to a factor of 10-to-1 (although 2x and 3x reductions are more common).
Expect to hear more from Crossroads in the months to come, as the company looks to build its VTS sales efforts in the AS/400 market. “The System i, iSeries, IBM i, Power Systems market is ripe for adoption of technology like Virtual TapeServer, because of their resilience and optimization features they provide to protect data,” Haley says. “What we have found is, even though there are other competitors in this market, no given product or technology has received complete mind share.”