IBM beats Sun, HP and EMC for SAN at plant research facility

The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility has chosen IBM’s DS4700 to collect data in its new research facility, albeit with a touch of buyer’s remorse about its decision to adopt fibre channel over iSCSI.

Adelaide’s Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) has chosen IBM’s DS4700 SAN to power a new research facility that will collect countless images of plants.

The APPF operates “The Plant Accelerator,” a giant greenhouse in which up to 2400 plants circulate on conveyor belts. Once a day, each plant is photographed using visible light, ultraviolet light and near infrared light. The resulting images are used to create a three-dimensional image of each plant.

Each of the pots in which the plants grow has an RFID tag, allowing images of the plants to be assembled into a longitudinal study of how each responds to different environmental conditions. APPF scientists are also aware of each plant’s genetic makeup, enabling inferences to be drawn about which plants do best in certain conditions.

APPF IT Manager Lachlan Tailby told SearchStorage ANZ the project was a greenfield site, and the search for a SAN to store the images was therefore made without the need to consider incumbent suppliers.

“We invited Sun, IBM, EMC and HP to have a chat with us and discuss their storage products,” Tailby says, a process that yielded some interesting differences in style. “Some sales people were happier to be flexible to our needs,” Tailby recalls. “Others wanted to push us down a path to their product.”

APPF eventually settled on IBM, after finding that little separated the bidders in terms of technology.

“Support was the decider,” Tailby says. “The presence of people on the ground made a difference.”

The organisation has since acquired to IBM DS4700 machines. One is operational, the other currently serves as a disaster recovery tool but is expected to be pressed into everyday service as APPF creates more data and reaches its expected top load of 300 terabytes.

Interestingly, the organisation is using one-terabyte SATA hard disks. Tailby says the decision to use the large drives, despite higher data retrieval times that come with drives of this size, was made on the basis of cost and the fact that APFF simply does not need rapid access to data. “Each run on a batch of plants can take between six weeks and six months,” he says. “So we are not in a huge rush for re-analysis.”

“Some suggested fibre channel disks and tiered storage,” he recalls. “But value is the first thing we look at these days, because depending on your application how fast do your disks need to be?”

“We deduced to use SATA throughout and it is doing the job for us.”

While deciding SATA’s lower speed was suitable for its needs, the organisation has nonetheless adopted a 4GB/s fiber channel network to connect its SANs. Tailby says this decision does not reflect any commitment to the protocol, but rather the late 2008 timeframe for the purchasing decision.

“For us at the time, two years ago, I I was a bit iffy on iSCSI,” he says. “I think it has matured now,” and if APPF were opening today the protocol would be a far stronger candidate for its SAN.

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