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Lightning about to strike

Watch out for February 6th, 2012 folks! The Lightning is about to strike!

Yes, it is likely that EMC will be announcing their server-based, 8-lane PCIe Flash memory card in early week of February. The PCIe card was dubbed “Project Lightning” when it was first announced in EMC World in May last year. It represents EMC’s first foray of products that sits on the server side, giving the impression that EMC could be entering the server business. I blogged about this way back in September last year. As explained by the EMC folks, they are not going into the server business but rather “extending” their performance tiering into the server space. Think of it like an umbilical cord that  sucks the server’s CPU processing power to give maximum performance boost for the EMC storage.

The card will sport Solid State Drive from LSI Warp Drive and comes in 100/200/300GB capacity. Here’s a picture of how the Lightning card would look like:

The SSD is an SLC (Single Level Cell) and is capable of delivering 150,000 random reads IOPS based on 4K blocks and 190,000 random writes IOPS. It can squeeze 1.4GB/sec in read throughput. While it is not on par with the performance of Fusion-IO, it can definitely do well leveraging EMC’s huge customer base. Furthermore, PCIe-based Flash memory cards such as Fusion-IO will not be able to take advantage of the bridge that links the server and the storage, making it confined to the server’s resources. The advantage is definitely EMC when you explore the possibilities.

Here’s a view of a slide from Virtual Geek summarizing the Project Lightning:

The Lightning card is aimed at customers who demand the highest performance, even higher that Tier 0. It will be integrated with EMC’s FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) technology and is available to the VNX and VMAX platforms.

So watch out folks, because Lightning is about to strike soon!


Signs of things to come?

I wanted to sign off early tonight but an article in ComputerWorld caught my tired eyes. It was titled “EMC to put hardware into servers, VMs into storage” and after I read it, I couldn’t help but to juxtapose the articles with what I said earlier in my blogs, here and here.

It is very interesting to note that “EMC runs vSphere directly on the storage controllers and then uses vMotion to migrate VMs from application servers onto the storage array, ..” since the storage boxes have enough compute power to run Virtual Machines on the storage. Traditionally and widely accepted, VMs should be running on servers. Contrary to beliefs, EMC has already demonstrated this running of VMs capability on their VNX, Isilon and Symmetrix.

And soon, with EMC’s Project Lightning (announced at EMC World in May 2011), they will be introducing server side PCIe-based SSDs, ala Fusion-IO. This is different from the NetApp PAM/FlashCache PCIe-based card, which sits on their arrays, not on hosts or servers. And it is also very interesting to note that this EMC server-side PCIe Flash SSD card will become a bridge to EMC’s FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) architecture, enabling it to place hot, warm and cold data strategically on different storage tiers of the applications on VMware’s VMs (now on either the server or the storage),  perhaps using vMotion as a data mover on top of the “specialized” link created by the server-side EMC PCIe card.

This also blurs the line between the servers and storage and creates a virtual architecture between servers and storage, because what used to be distinct data border of the servers is now being melded into the EMC storage array, virtually.

2 red alerts are flagging in my brain right now.

  1. The “bridge” has just linked the server back to the storage, after years of talking about networked storage. The server is ONE again with the storage. Doesn’t that look to you like a server with plenty of storage? It has come a full cycle. But more interesting and what I am eager to see is what more is this “bridge” capable of when it comes to data management. vMotion might be the first of many new “protocol” breeds to enhance data management and mobility with this “bridge”. I am salivating right now of this massive potential.
  2. What else can EMC do with the VMware API? This capability I am writing right now is made possible by EMC tweaking VMware’s API to maximize much, much more. As the VMware vStorage API is continually being enhanced, the potential is again, very massive and could change the entire landscape of cloud computing and subsequently, the entire IT landscape. This is another Pavlov’s dog moment (see figures below as part of my satirical joke on myself)


Sorry, the diagram below is not related to what my blog entry is. Just my way of describing myself right now. 😉

I am extremely impressed with what EMC is doing. A lot of smarts and thinking go into this and this is definitely signs of things to come. The server and the storage are “merging again”. Think of it as Borg assimilation in Star Trek.

Resistance is futile!

Solid State Drives … are they reliable?

There’s been a lot of questions about Solid State Drives (SSD), aka Enterprise Flash Drives (EFD) by some vendors. Are they less reliable than our 10K or 15K RPM hard disk drives (HDDs)? I was asked this question in the middle of the stage when I was presenting the topic of Green Storage 3 weeks ago.

Well, the usual answer from the typical techie is … “It depends”.

We all fear the unknown and given the limited knowledge we have about SSDs (they are fairly new in the enterprise storage market), we tend to be drawn more to the negatives than the positives of what SSDs are and what they can be. I, for one, believe that SSDs have more positives and over time, we will grow to accept that this is all part of what the IT evolution. IT has always evolved into something better, stronger, faster, more reliable and so on. As famously quoted by Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm, in the movie Jurassic Park I, “Life finds a way …”, IT will always find a way to be just that.

SSDs are typically categorized into MLCs (multi-level cells) and SLCs (single-level cells). They have typically predictable life expectancy ranging from tens of thousands of writes to more than a million writes per drive. This, by no means, is a measure of reliability of the SSDs versus the HDDs. However, SSD controllers and drives employ various techniques to enhance the durability of the drives. A common method is to balance the I/O accesses to the disk block to adapt the I/O usage patterns which can prolong the lifespan of the disk blocks (and subsequently the drives itself) and also ensure performance of the drive does not lag since the I/O is more “spread-out” in the drive. This is known as “wear-leveling” algorithm.

Most SSDs proposed by enterprise storage vendors are MLCs to meet the market price per IOP/$/GB demand because SLC are definitely more expensive for higher durability. Also MLCs have higher BER (bit-error-rate) and it is known than MLCs have 1 BER per 10,000 writes while SLCs have 1 BER per 100,000 writes.

But the advantage of SSDs clearly outweigh HDDs. Fast access (much lower latency) is one of the main advantages. Higher IOPS is another one. SSDs can provide from several thousand IOPS to more than 1 million IOPS when compared to enterprise HDDs. A typical 7,200 RPM SATA drive has less than 120 IOPS while a 15,000 RPM Fibre Channel or SAS drive ranges from 130-200 IOPS. That IOPS advantage is definitely a vast differentiator when comparing SSDs and HDDs.

We are also seeing both drive-format and card-format SSDs in the market. The drive-format type are typically in the 2.5″ and 3.5″ profile and they tend to fit into enterprise storage systems as “disk drives”. They are known to provide capacity. On the other hand, there are also card-format type of SSDs, that fit into a PCIe card that is inserted into host systems. These tend to address the performance requirement of systems and applications. The well known PCIe vendors are Fusion-IO which is in the high-end performance market and NetApp which peddles the PAM (Performance Access Module) card in its filers. The PAM card has been renamed as FlashCache. Rumour has it that EMC will be coming out with a similar solution soon.

Another to note is that SSDs can be read-biased or write-biased. Most SSDs in the market tend to be more read-biased, published with high read IOPS, not write IOPS. Therefore, we have to be prudent to know what out there. This means that some solution, such as the NetApp FlashCache, is more suitable for heavy-read I/O rather than writes I/O. The FlashCache addresses a large segment of the enterprise market because most applications are heavy on reads than writes.

SSDs have been positioned as Tier 0 layer in the Automated Storage Tiering segment of Enterprise Storage. Vendors such as Dell Compellent, HP 3PAR and also EMC FAST2 position themselves with enhanced tiering techniques to automated LUN and sub-LUN tiering and customers have been lapping up this feature like little puppies.

However, an up-and-coming segment for SSDs usage is positioning the SSDs as extended read or write cache to the existing memory of the systems. NetApp’s Flashcache is a PCIe solution that is basically an extended read cache. An interesting feature of Oracle Solaris ZFS called Hybrid Storage Pool allows the creation of read and write cache using SSDs. The Sun fellas even come up with cool names – ReadZilla and LogZilla – for this Hybrid Storage Pool features.

Basically, I have poured out what I know about SSDs (so far) and I intend to learn more about it. SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) has a Technical Working Group for Solid State Storage. I advise the readers to check it out.