Dynamic Dot Hill

Successfully playing the OEM supply game

Dot Hill manufactures and supplies disk drive arrays to partners such as HP, NetApp and Sun. The supply deal to HP was quite recently announced and followed by HP’s own announcement of its MSA2000 modular storage array which is, under the re-branded cover, a Dot Hill 2000 series product. We had the opportunity to talk to Cooper Cowart, Dot Hill’s marketing VP and find out more about the company.

For an OEM, supplying storage products, such as disk drive arrays, to companies like these is a high stakes business. Several suppliers, such as Overland Storage and Tandberg have seen OEM contracts fall away or not perform as hoped and got into financial difficulties as a result. One aspect of the business is that there are relatively few customers and they can be loosely divided into three ranks.

First are the low-sales customers who don’t buy many products. Second are the mid-tier customers who buy a few products, enough for the supplier to survive but not thrive.

Thirdly, there are the blue chip customers with a commanding presence in their markets who can take thousands of units of product over the life of a contract. With these customers you can thrive but it is unwise to have too many eggs in one basket as, when they turn the tap off, the OEM can quickly get into difficulties. OEMs have to be alert to what their customers want and alert to how technologies affecting them are developing.

Dot Hill has grown its business, under the leadership of CEO Dana Kammersgard. It supplies arrays which Sun brands as its 3000 line and has done so for 5 to 6 years. Dot Hill also supplies arrays which NetApp uses in its FAS2020 and FAS2050 products.

Cowart says of these arrays and of the HP deal: “We’re very proud of the technology and HP is a fantastic company to partner.” There wasn’t a great deal of time between the OEM contract announcement and the MSA one, which meant there was a quick ramp up in manufacturing.

The actual DotHill 2000 product line has existed for about eighteen months. Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) takes it for its FibreCAT SX80 and SX88. Hammer also takes it in Europe, as does Viglen and also DVS. US partners for the product line include Stratus – non-stop computing – and Sepaton, which, co-incindentally, supplies virtual tape library products to HP.

All of Dot Hill’s partners (customers) rebrand the product and Cowart says that: “Our brand is built through partner relationships. We pride ourselves on supporting our partners in their marketplace.”

He says that Dot Hill is doing well in Europe: “(Altogether) we have a fairly good foothold in Europe, and we have more partners coming in Germany, in oil and gas and the general distribution (market).”

Power down
Cowart is proud of Dot Hill’s green credentials, particularly its super-capacitor and compact flash technology that removes the need for battery power. Cowart said: “Eliminating battery use through super-capacitors is a good thing. They have a 10-year life compared to the 2 to 3-year life of batteries.” That removes the need to send old batteries to landfill sites.

FSC includes the super-capacitor concept quite prominently in its FibreCAT marketing messages.

Green concerns around energy consumption form one of the market drivers in Europe and the US. The power-down concept is an important aspect of this. With it inactive drives in an array are slowed down so that they draw less power, with user-settable policies controlling which drives are so affected. Cowart said drives could even be spun down to a idle state and added: “Something will come (from Dot Hill) in 2008.

Another storage market driver is digital data growth and its effect on storage demand. Cowart said: “We believe the storage market is very healthy, especially at the entry-level and in the mid-range, both in units and in terabytes.

2.5-inch drives
Cowart reckons Dot Hill has a GB/U advantage compared to, for example, EMC CLARiiON and LSI’s Engenio. Dot Hill has the ability to put 12 drives, a RAID controller and array controller in a 2U rack unit: “CLARiiON and Engenio’s GB/U isn’t as efficient as our design.”

The advent of 2.5-inch drives and the possibility of increasing the IOPS/U is promising as well, with Cowart saying: “We believe there are opportunities here for Dot Hill in 2008/2009. 2.5-inch technology will really help from the spindles per U perspective.”

In other words we might expect Dot Hill to introduce arrays with 2.5-inch drives.

As an aid to servicability the company is also interested in double- and quad-drive sleds.

Dot Hill has RAID 6 technology and is looking at two file systems above RAID in the stack, so to speak, to support and counter multiple drive failures. It is apparent that any move to 2.5-inch drive technology will increase the number of drives in an array and likewise increase the probability of drive failures.

Another interesting area for Dot Hill is SAS (serial-attached SCSI) and nearline storage.

Cowart also said that direct current (DC) power is coming to mid-range Dot Hill products and added that this is for larger data centres and probably not useful for SME customers.

Cowart suggested that Dot Hill might have announcements to be made at the next SNW event. I should think that is a pretty safe assumption to make.

Summing up
What is apparent is that a manufacturer like Dot Hill has to have advanced techology capabilities but only proceed with product developments in close partnership with its OEM customers.

It has to work the semingly magic trick of trying to find technologies that will apply to most of or all its OEMs, as well as designing products that are more advanced than its competitors. It cannot afford to be so far in front that it leaves its OEMs behind and they don’t buy. Nor can it afford to be behind so that competitors pass it and capture its OEM customers.

Pacing your progress is vital in the OEM drive array supply game and Dot Hill is showing it’s pretty dynamic in the way it does this. SNW should give us a good indication of just what Dot Hill has been up to in the product development department.

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