On the eve of Apple’s cancellation of the Xserve, Active Storage, makers of the ActiveRAID storage system, announced the ActiveSAN appliance to provide an upgrade path for Xsan users. ActiveSAN is a drop-in replacement for an Xserve metadata controller tuned for media and creative shops that can leverage their existing investment in Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBA), switches, and storage arrays. The ActiveSAN appliance is built using Intel Nehalem hardware and utilizes Linux and the Quantum StorNext SAN file system. On top of this enterprise-grade platform, Active Storage has provided a management suite that provides the ease of use that Xsan users have come to expect from an Apple-centric solution.
The Fibre Channel storage environment was one of the primary markets for the Xserve. Mac OS X Server can provide filesharing, directory, DNS, email, calendar and other network services but many of those tasks are easily handled by a Mac mini. But Fibre Channel SANs are different because they require add-in Fibre Channel HBA cards that don’t fit in a Mac mini, but do work in an Xserve.
In an Xsan environment, all clients are connected to the Fibre Channel switch fabric and have direct block-level access to the filesystem on the storage array. For example, several video editors could directly access the same massive Final Cut project stored on a huge storage array using high-speed Fibre Channel connections. The Xserve metadata controller (MDC) acts as a traffic cop to make sure that two of those video editors do not try to modify the same file at the same time. The whole system is much faster than relying on Ethernet speeds on a network file server, but also much more expensive. Many media and creative shops have a huge investment in the storage arrays and the associated Fibre Channel infrastructure to connect them to their editing workstations. The death of the Xserve was unnerving because Xsan won’t work without a Mac-based MDC.
It’s possible to enlist a Mac Pro as an MDC, but the advantage of the Xserve was that it provided a convenient form factor that saved space in a rack loaded with storage arrays. The new ActiveSAN appliance can replace an Xserve MDC with the same rack mount form factor. Perhaps more important than the convenience of replacing the same 1U rack space, is that IT directors can now rest assured that their investment in the Xsan environment will not be lost even if the Xserve itself cannot be replaced.
The management suite includes the ActiveSAN appliances, the ActiveRAID storage array, and Innerpool metadata appliances which will provide a simple administrative utility that is meant to be accessible to creative professionals that sometimes provide their own IT support. Active Storage has a training program in place that will include online, self-paced education as well as instructor-led training at Active Storage facilities. Xsan consultants and instructors are also being enlisted to provide on-site training and installation for companies that select ActiveSAN.
While many will never need Fibre Channel storage, ActiveSAN is a great solution for those that have heavily invested in Xsan and want the confidence of being able to replace Xserve MDCs as needed.
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