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back to article Adaptec - the eternal wannabe

Adaptec always wanted to grow beyond its core adapter business - to be greater than the sum of its parts - but it only managed to serially underachieve, never fully breaking out of the adapter market in which it felt confined. The company was founded by Larry Boucher in 1981 to speed I/O between computers and external devices. …

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FAIL

You are missing the main lesson

Adaptec successes are all associated with engineering and delivering own gear. Adaptec's failure to penetrate the SATA market are because it thought that by buying a budget chip from SiliconImage and slapping an Adaptec brand on it can magically make it the supercontroller which the customers have learned to expect.

Wrong, customer is not stupid and instead of being equated with quality and performance Adaptec became a synonim with a crappy rebadge.

Yeah, heretical thoughts. Customer suddenly has a brain and can notice that a Saab is no longer a Saab, but just a badly rebadged Vectra, a Jaguar is no longer a Jaguar, but a badly rebadged Mondeo and Adaptec is no longer an Adaptec - it is a badly rebadged budget chip you find on a low end motherboard. However, the lesson is still being missed. Guess the addiction to whalesong has something to do with that...

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Silver badge
WTF?

Two columns?

This column needs two columns: one for the financial side, and one for the tech side. Mixing them together in a jumble like this makes the story less readable. Often there's no segue, leaving the reader to wonder which is cause and which is effect.

Unless that was the author's intent: to portray a company which couldn't even separate its financials from its business well enough to get a competent focus on either one?

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Boffin

Ah Adaptec

The eternal story : "That card looks great, oh Windows only"

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Zak
Unhappy

Hard to see a pioneer go out like this

From my early days of building computers, I always had a high respect for Adaptec. Just like the Anonymous Coward posted, their boards just really went south as far as quality goes. I now buy all of my computers/servers and it's easy to see that LSI is one of the kings of the hill when it comes to raid controllers.

Hopefully Adaptec gets bought by a company that has a good business plan for them and can make another go at it. I would really hate to see LSI or another company buy them and just take whatever is left of their good technology and never see Adaptec's name again.

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Paris Hilton

Adaptec was the name in controllers, and set the bar

From my experience, Adaptec was THE name in controllers, be it stand-alone IDE or SCSI, or enterprise-class RAID controllers; if you wanted performance, you went the more expensive Adaptec or you went home. Hell, I still have plenty of 2940s laying around here.

But others began to take Adaptec's place. AMI with the MegaRAID controllers, Promise's RocketRAID, HighPoint, LSI, Intel Matrix, and (my current favorite) 3-Ware. Now if I could just get 3-Ware drivers for Solaris, I would be a happy camper.

In the day, Adaptec made, or at least designed, its own controller chips. The AHA or AIC markings were a symbol of excellence for SCSI, IDE, and RAID controllers. Never had a failure or a hiccup using these devices. And the transition to SATA? Abysmal. Peel the sticker off the controller of a 1200SA or any other Adaptec SATA RAID controllers and you will find HPT, HighPoint, looking back at you.

Oh, how the mighty fall. Adaptec has been a constant throughout my technological history, and I for one will miss it, but times change, eh? SO long as we can continue to have a leader in the market, a manufacturer which puts quality and technology ahead of the game, I think I will be happy. Just learn from Adaptec where it could not learn from itself.

Paris, learning from herself.

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Flame

Once Again

Investor greed has driven another good company out of business.

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I would still buy Adaptec...

I trust Adaptec controllers and have used them many times, and I would still buy them if they had better Linux support.

With Linux I find you're far better off buying hardware it already supports and has drivers for, rather than struggling with adding a driver. Sometimes adding a driver is easy, and sometimes it requires compiling the kernel. And other times you risk breaking your OS by having to install a newer version of some dependency that's not meant to run on your older kernel.

The last Adaptec sas/sata raid controller I bought (over a year ago now) was so much trouble to get working with a linux server, that I used it on a Windows Server instead - on which it works very well.

For me, it's 3ware: bolt it in, install centos or what have you, add four green 2TB drives, and you have a lot of raid5 storage for not much money, and not much electricity burned a day...

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technical details - linux compatibility etc.

With respect to Linux, Adaptec's FSA RAID (aacraid) historically has been and still is one of the first and best supported RAID controller brands, on par with maybe only 3ware. The Linux user-space utils starting with aaccli/arcconf and ending with the "Storage Manager" have always been among the best on the market. The vanilla Linux AACRAID driver even exhibits some "forward compatibility" with newer AACRAID cards - detects them as a generic AACRAID model and tends to work with them just fine.

I remember a time at the end of nineties when AACRAID was a novelty, but it soon became a cornerstone of Linux HW RAID driver support. I still remember how happy I was around 2003/2004 that the old DPT RAID flavour of Adaptec cards was finally gone - especially the last specimen of the DPT ZCR family tended to be unreliable and the firmware features were sub-prime.

3ware used to be the cheapest HW RAID, reliable and compatible, but lacking CPU horsepower. From 9000 series above I lost track, so I cannot judge the current portfolio (they finally seem to have switched to high-performance CPU's, the AMCC-flavour PowerPC).

Regarding Adaptec's own SCSI controllers (AHA/ASC/AIC): I started to avoid them with the second generation of AIC-7902/29320/39320, which apparently can be distinguished by the "A" suffix. The first-gen Adaptec U320 controllers had no problem against LSI U320 targets (I still have one or two pieces), but the latter variety couldn't run properly at U320 against LSI, hence there was a problem getting them to work with CDB16/LBA64, which was a problem with external storage boxes, typically featuring target-mode controllers by LSI. Even the earlier variety of U320 *and* 64bit (PCI) U160 controllers had some problem against ServerWorks chipsets (ceased to be a problem as Intel chipsets finally prevailed in servers).

None of this was a problem with the Adaptec RAID controllers, because

A) you don't attach an external RAID box to an internal PCI RAID

B) on ASR2120/2200 the AIC HBA chip is attached to the host PC via a PCI IOP CPU by Intel, hence no problem with PCI compatibility.

Regarding the Adaptec SATA RAID portfolio and "rebadging a SiliconImage chip": many people still fail to distinguish

A.) a proper hardware RAID controller (with its own CPU, RAM and firmware in Flash)

B.) from a "soft RAID" (just a cheap HBA chip with a companion Flash for the BIOS option ROM).

I cannot tell whether or not it was a marketing error on part of Adaptec to sell cheap soft-raids, which admittedly are a problem in Linux. The AAR-1200 series were a soft RAID (HostRaid in Adaptec lingo). The AAR-2410 / 2420 were/are a proper hardware RAID (aacraid family), in terms of features precisely on par with Adaptec 2120/2130. Actually the SATA implementation is even slightly better in some respects, such as independent drive channels and quicker response to drive failures (that's right, the failure response on SCSI is *slower*). When shopping for an Adaptec controller for Linux, you always had to check that you were buying an "aacraid". You always get what you pay for. The SiliconImage chip itself is pretty good in its class, has no obvious compatibility or performance problems - in that sense, it was certainly a good choice. Obviously not for the Linux folks, who don't like being fooled into buying a software RAID stack that they have to dump anyway (if it can be circumvented at all, starting from the BIOS).

Note that there were even SCSI HBA's wearing the "HostRaid" suffix - some members of the 29320/39320 family. Of course those were easier to identify as "just plain HBA's" by the basic product number.

One last note regarding Adaptec HostRaid: among the many "software RAID HBA" implementations out there, the Adaptec HostRaid BIOS and drivers were among the best. As good as it gets, without a dedicted CPU. Adaptec shipped the HostRaid even with onboard HBA's - initially with the SCSI AIC series, later on the stack also started to appear as just a BIOS option ROM with third-party onboard HBA's (Intel ICH, even Marvell I think). E.g. on some SuperMicro motherboards, you have a choice between an original Intel soft-RAID stack (matrix storage) and the Adaptec HostRaid option ROM. To me, the choice has always been clear - the Adaptec HostRaid, owing to its bug-free BIOS part and excellent OS-based management tools. Unfortunately for Adaptec, the onboard HostRaid stack was almost invisible in the motherboards' marketing material (product web, datasheets, packaging), and actually hardly any end-customers knew enough to tell a difference.

Obviously this train of thought is only valid for Windows. Forget about HostRaid for Linux. If you don't want to pay for a genuine HW RAID, save some money, buy a plain HBA and use a native Linux MD RAID. Some argue that the MD RAID even has advantages over a proprietary HW RAID in terms of both performance and "hardware-independent crash recovery".

I still remember the time when Intel rounded off the i960-based generation of the IOP CPU family and all the RAID vendors depending on that (Adaptec and MegaRAID among others) had a hard time taking the next step - some followed the path to Intel Xscale IOP's, others took other paths. Adaptec finally rolled out its own RoC chips, forming the basis of ASR-2130/2230 (MIPS-based?). Adaptec later returned to Intel with the "universal SATA/SAS family" (so the AACRAID firmware once again ran on Intel Xscale hardware), though actually the first Arm-based AACRAID was the old ASR5400 quad-channel SCSI if memory serves...

It may well be that the discontinuation of i960 by Intel has "mixed the cards" in the RAID game quite a bit. Non-intel CPU's got a chance and some Xscale-only startup competition has been founded, e.g. Areca (though there have been Areca models that do run on non-Xscale CPU's). The dot.com bust, the growing market acceptance of SATA (?) in servers and even the maturing open-source soft-RAID implementations in Linux/xBSD have just been additional nails in the Adaptec coffin.

The current "universal SATA/SAS" family (starting with 3800 series) is actually pretty good. The SFF-8087 with SGPIO support are the best SAS/SATA interconnect ever.

Some of our customers still demand Adaptec as "the top-notch RAID controller brand".

I tend to prefer Areca, which has similar features and IMO a richer yet lighter-weight management interface - but some customers are difficult to convert :-)

The BIOS interface to Adaptec cards has traditionally been fairly spartan (compared to e.g. Areca, but certainly on par with or better than MegaRAID, 3ware and others). Makes me wonder how many people are actually coding the firmware, BIOS and OS-based tools at Adaptec and the other vendors. I wouldn't be surprised if it's just a fairly narrow team of people, maybe down to 2-5. How much fluctuation is there in the core team, across all the ups and downs and mergers? Is anyone of the original AACRAID developers still working on the firmware? To me as a techie, the set of features and capabilities is actually the decisive selling point - rather than press announcements, acquisitions, stock splits, hostile takeovers, board-level coups and all the other corporation games...

Adaptec wanted to buy Symbios? Wow, didn't notice that :-) To me, Symbios has always been a part of LSI, a key part of the LSI SCSI expertise and excellence, up to U320.

Did you say that Adaptec bought some RAID stuff from IBM? I thought the MegaRAID acquisition path was AMI->IBM->LSI :-)

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FAIL

Almost there

Chris, not a bad article, at least you describe the massive management failures of Adaptec as a prelude to investors lead by Steel trying to get some of their money back after years of seeing it p*****d against the wall by bad management of which Sundi is merely the worst in a long line.

What I would dispute is the the purchase of Snap was the most costly mistake. The really big one that you miss was the purchase of Platys for $150M by Bob Stephens. This was an iSCSI offload technology that when bought from Platys was nothing but a few wires attached to smoke and mirrors.

At a conservative estimate Adaptec spent $300M on trying to develop that product. They did produce a basic iSCSI HBA but the 2nd generation for generic protocol offload never worked. One of Sundi's first acts was to give it away to ServerEngines for almost nothing, certainly the IP and the R&D team was sold for less than $1M.

Now that dwarves the fiasco with Snap.

Where Snap is significant is that it was the straw that broke the camel's back. When Snap were bought they refused to integrate with the rest of Adaptec. They continued to operate as if they were still an autonomous company and stiffled all attempts at creating synergies. By that time Adaptec could barely afford to properly fund one organisation let alone two warring ones. The failure to initially sell Snap and then Sundi's decision to put most of Adaptec's R&D in to a new generation of Snap servers effectively killed the rest of the company.

I know many people look at Adaptec now and curse the "greedy bankers/hedge funds". But as you've highlighted the problem was really greedy mismanagement that stretches over decades.

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Anonymous Coward

Unified Serial

Shame they can't get their whole act together, as the Unified Serial RAID controllers are the best out there at the moment in our experience, especially for the cost - they aren't all that expensive and give about 2x the performance we've seen from equivalently priced LSI cards and way ahead of the 3ware cards we stopped using. The only thing that lets them down right now IMHO is that they only have one board layout - with connectors on the end of the boards, if they had an alternative like LSI with the connects near the back plate and facing "up" then we'd be able to use them in every server.

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Anonymous Coward

Adaptec Management

This is a good history of Adaptec, in the Register's snarky style. I was with Adaptec for a few years in the late 90's, and saw some of the issues mentioned in the article - very lax financial controls, management's lack of focus, and acquisitions with no integration plan.

Towards the end of my stay at Adaptec, I became part of a corporate planning project led by some strategy consultants. We identified all of the above issues and more, and came to the conclusion that Adaptec should stick to a few core businesses. Obviously, Adaptec management didn'f follow through on our recommendations.

This is not a case of greedy investors ruining a good company; all the company's problems can be traced back to Adaptec management.

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Bronze badge

DPT tells the whole story...

It always seemed to me that there were two attitudes to Adaptec. The PC market generally regarded them as the bees knees whereas the server market regarded them as mid range at best. When they bought DPT it appeared to many that they were attempting to make real inroads in the high end server market.

However they may as well have burnt the money they paid for DPT. I know they pissed off me and many of my friends by almost instantly end of lifeing the entire DPT product range. The very cards that DPT had no trouble releasing Windows 2000 beta drivers for were now suddenly fundamentally incompatible with Win2000, and maybe you should upgrade to a new card - after all, that $1000 card you bought 12 months ago is old hat now.

You know, maybe I will upgrade, but it won't be to an Adaptec....

At a stroke they lost a lot of goodwill in the high end market. SCSI was even then rapidly losing ground to ATA at the low end and it was clear the writing was on the wall. SAS and SATA gave them a chance to recover some of the ground on the dekstop - if they had introduced a sub $100 intelligent SATA controller things might look very different for the company now, and the average desktop PC may have a disk subsystem worthy of the name. But no, they focussed on the server market which was getting increasingly high end. Too bad they had already burned those bridges.

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