Black box hardware–Do you expect much? You Should!

One of the things I’ve noticed over my IT career is that if I’m buying servers and storage systems, I look very closely at features and design elements. A good example is server systems, where serviceability and rack ease of use are important. This can be anything from intuitive rail mechanisms, to front-side USB (remember when that was novel??) or performance design for density and capacity.

But when I buy systems that “include” hardware, I usually forgo these preferences. I’ve sometimes referred to them as Black Box hardware that accompanies another purchase. I’ve used mail relay systems, deduplication appliances, firewalls, network software solutions and more where there are hardware requirements. We buy these solutions for the software, and don’t generally give much concern for the hardware involved.

In my previous role, I supported specialized software solutions that ran on Windows Appliance Edition (See a blogpost I did on specialized hardware) and a number of Linux-based hardware devices. I bought them for the software.

The takeaway here is that when we buy these hardware solutions, we continually are disappointed with the individual equipment components; especially when something goes wrong.

Recently, I had a chance to talk to MBX Systems about a new product they are launching in this space. They just launched the MBX X-60 disk system (pictured below):


You can see the big feature on this appliance, a lot of disks. 60 to be exact, and a lot of flexibility for the software solution to plug into this platform. While MBX doesn’t have a specific application that is built for, there are a lot of use cases. One of my favorite detail features is below:

Configurable SAS2 backplanes with 6 GB SAS expanders delivering up to 5 discrete backplane configurations with performance up to 30 Gb/s

The 5 discreet channels part is most important to me. So, there can be 5 discrete I/O channels. This could be of great interest to next generation deduplication or storage systems that may want to have a higher-tier performing zone on SSDs or something, yet they won’t have to manufacture the hardware themselves. We always want high capacity storage (when not using as a SAN) to be something fancy, or at least fancier than the BackBlaze cookbook from 2009.

The MBX X-60 gravitates to a term that was new to me: “Cloud drives” They refer to this hard drive for use in this product that provides the best cost and capacity (for most applications) benefit, and it usually comes from the desktop computing segment. The software maker can specify higher performance drives, however if needed.

Other features of the MBX X-60 include these, with my notes in red:

Up to 240 TB of storage, depending on the customer’s needs. Important as SSDs are also supported, if they use 3.5” interface (usually with enclosure).

Support for ATX or Extended ATX motherboard form factors, providing the flexibility to add expansion slots as well as the power to support both big data storage and processing in one unit – leveraging EATX’s 512 GB of memory plus the system’s power supply, cooling and expansion design. So, the compute platform here (and next point) allow the most options for the hardware platform for the software applications to run on.

· Support for a variety of x86 or ARM architectures depending on the motherboard configuration  Good, as above.

Integrated individual drive activity and fail LED indicators Good, don’t want black boxes to not indicate problems.

· Dual fan banks for distributed cooling to acclimate to operating environment extremes. Good for serviceability.

· Tool-less maintenance with captive thumb screws for easy front and rear lid removal. Good for serviceability.

Inside of this OEM hardware space, there are a lot of details in play. First of all, products like the MBX X-60 is targeted to a few specific industries/applications:

  • Video streaming
  • Broadcasting
  • Video on demand
  • Media storage
  • Public or private cloud storage
  • Email archiving
  • Data warehousing
  • File and web services

These are just a few use cases that MBX supply with the product, and appeal to the industry to find a fit for software applications.

I asked MBX if any specific customers were lined up for the MBX X-60, they didn’t offer any but focused on the industries/applications list above.

All of this being said, I think MBX is on the right path with the design of this series for serviceability, I/O channels and flexible compute platforms.

What do you expect of “black box hardware”? Share your comments below.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by theedge103 on April 3, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    That MBX hardware does look like a Backblaze open source design, so good for them to use something that works! 🙂 I think the flexibility to drop in a Supermicro motherboard and use any storage software (ZFS, Windows Storage Server, etc) or drop in a SAN hardware controller like the ATX FastStream 8550 board and you have a winner for price, performance and flexibility.. that open source mentality is what is best about this….


  2. Hi James, good stiff and thanks for the comment. It does loosely do the Backblaze approach, just with more of a solution built around it.


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