First, cloud storage startup Backblaze pioneered the concept of open source storage hardware. Then, it showed how to pack 135 terabytes into a 4U case (which Backblaze calls a “pod”) for less than $8,000. As it turns out, a lot of people really like what the company is doing: Backblaze rolled out the specifications of its third-generation storage pods on Wednesday against the backdrop of hundreds of companies building and actually selling the designs.
And just who has built storage systems using the Backblaze specifications? Netflix is probably the most-famous adopter — it uses storage pods as part of its content-delivery network infrastructure — but others include Vanderbilt University, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Popular online photography service Shutterfly stores petabytes worth of users’ old photos on BackBlaze’s storage pod architecture.
Their uses are as diverse as their organizations are. There’s Netflix’s CDN and Shutterstock’s consumer cloud storage, while many are using pods as giant NAS devices that everyone can access. “Its more data than they ever thought could be possible for their company,” Backblaze Founder and CEO Gleb Budman told me. “They just RAID them and they go.”
Oh, and he added, “I know of at least one individual person who built one of these for himself for his house.” It stores his media collection and helped his marriage. It appears some wives don’t appreciate sprawling hard-drive farms sucking up energy and taking up all the garage space.
Disrupting the storage industry 1 terabyte at a time
That the Backblaze design has caught on so broadly shouldn’t be surprising, Budman said. For years, storage vendors have been protecting their margins by loading even customers’ “write once, read very rarely” systems with enterprise-class features that often weren’t necessary. If you wanted an enterprise-class storage system, “you bought a NetApp,” he joked, and if you wanted just to house some non-critical data, “you bought a NetApp.”
So, in the world of high-volume storage, we’ve come to a place similar to the PC market decades ago when it was cheaper to just buy the parts and build your own than it was to buy a pre-assembled computer. “Dell basically killed the homegrown computer market because they really, really focused on optimizing costs,” Budman explained. “No one did that for storage equipment. [Storage vendors] said, ‘Hey, we’re selling a million-dollar design, why would we change that?’”
Thanks in part to Backblaze, though, this system is changing. Ceaseless demands for parts led Protocase, the Canadian sheet-metal fabricator that makes Backblaze’s pod enclosures, to create a whole business — the aptly named 45 Drives — around selling pod parts or even wholly pre-assembled pods (second-generation ones start at $5,395 without the 45 hard drives they hold). Where it used to struggle to get business outside of Canada, Budman said, Protocase has sold Backblaze units to places as far away as China, Russia and Brazil.
Global electronics fabricator and supply-chain specialist Sanmina sells a modified version of the Backblaze pod design, as do a handful of value-added resellers and components companies around the world.
Interestingly, one place you won’t see Backblaze designs is in the other famous open source hardware effort — the Facebook-led Open Compute Project. Budman said he’s had conversations with the organization and some of its leaders and there has been interest in getting Backblaze involved, but that “for the most part what they want is help making their Open Compute system work.” He said he’d love to do it in theory, but there’s only so much time for a small company like Backblaze to spend on missions aside from improving its business.
Version 3.0: Now with 180TB and a lower cost
As for those third-generation storage pod designs, Open Compute Project, 45 Drives, guys with huge digital media collections and anyone else interested in building their own gear should have a lot to be excited about. Total capacity has been boosted to 180TB thanks to the prevalence of 4TB hard drives, and Backblaze has certified a few more types of hard drives because of the harsh lessons it learned about reliance on a single model during the hard drive shortage in 2010. The company has also replaced a bunch of the components it uses, everything from motherboards to memory to SATA cables.
Budman explains all the changes and the rationale behind them in a blog post published Wednesday morning, but the general theme is improved reliability and ease of management at a lower cost. All told, the new designs cost $1,942.59 — $37.41 less than the second-generation ones. Because of that recent shortage, though, hard drives still cost a little more than they did a few years ago.
Whatever comes of its efforts to be transparent about storage system design, Budman hopes it at least has a lasting effect on the availability of affordable storage. Organizations, he said, should “no longer have to make the decision between an expensive piece of equipment and not storing data.”