Is Dell Fluid Enough?

Dell made a huge splash 2 weeks ago in London in their inaugural Dell Storage Forum. They dubbed their storage and management lineup as “Fluid Data Architecture” offering the ability for customers to quickly adapt and automate their business when it comes to storage networking and more importantly, data management.

In the London show, they showcased several key innovations and product development. Here’s a list of their jewels:

  • DR4000 – an inline, content optimized backup deduplication appliance (based on the acquired technology of Ocarina Networks)
  • Compellent Storage Center 6.0 – a major software release
  • Compellent key technology integration with VMware
  • Optimized object storage for Microsoft Sharepoint with the DX6000 Object Storage Platform – DX6000 is an OEM from Caringo
  • Broader support for Dell Force10, PowerConnect and their partner’s Brocade

The technology from Ocarina Networks is fantastic technology and I have always admired Ocarina. I have written about Ocarina in the past in my previous blog. But I was a bit perplexed why Dell chose to enter the secondary dedupe market with a backup dedupe appliance in the DR4000. They are already a latecomer into the secondary deduplication game and I thought HP was already late with their StoreOnce.

They could have used Ocarina’s technology to trailblaze the primary deduplication market. In my previous blog, I mentioned that primary deduplication hasn’t really taken off in a big way, and Dell with the technology from Ocarina could set the standard and establish themselves as the leader of the primary deduplication market space. I was disappointed that they didn’t, not just yet.

The Compellent Storage Center 6.0 release was a major release and it was, for better or for worse, coincided with the departure of Phil Soran, the founder and CEO of Compellent. Phil felt that he can let his baby go and Dell is certainly making the best of what they can do with Compellent as their flagship data storage product.

The major release included 64-bit support for greater performance and scalability and also include several key VMware technologies that other vendors already have. The technologies included:

  • VMware vStorage API for Array Integration (VAAI)
  • Storage Replication Adapter plug-in for VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM)
  • VSphere 5 client plug-in
  • Integration of Enterprise Manager and VSphere

Other storage related releases (I am not going to talk about Force10 or their PowerConnect solutions here) included Dell offering 16Gbps FibreChannel switches from Brocade and also their DX6000 Object Storage Platform optimized for Microsoft Sharepoint.

I think it is fantastic that Dell is adapting and evolving into a business-oriented, enterprise solution provider and their acquisitions in the past 3 years – EqualLogic, Exanet, Ocarina Networks, Force10 and Compellent – proves that Dell aims to take market share in the storage networking and data management market. They have key initiatives with CommVault, Symantec, VMware and Microsoft as well. And Michael Dell is becoming quite a celebrity lately, giving Dell the boost it needs to battle in this market.

But the question is, “Is their Fluid Data Architecture” fluid enough?” If I were a customer, would I bite?

As a customer, I look for completeness in the total solution, and I cannot fault Dell for having most of the pieces in the solution stack. They have networking in their PowerConnect, Force10 and Brocade. They have SAN in both Compellent and EqualLogic but their unified storage story is still a bit lacking. That’s because we have not seen Dell’s NAS storage yet. Exanet was a scale-out NAS and we have seen little rah-rah about this product.

From a data management perspective, their data protection story gels well with the Commvault and Symantec partnership, but I feel that Dell sales and SEs (at least in Malaysia) spends too much time touting the Compellent Automated Storage Tiering. I have spoken to folks who have listened to Dell guys’ pitches and it’s too one-dimensional. It’s always about storage tiering and little else about other Compellent technology.

At this point of time, the story that Dell sells here in Malaysia is still disjointed, but they are getting better. And eventually, the fluidity (pun intended ;-)) of their Fluid Data Architecture will soon improve.

How will Dell fare in 2012? They had taken a beating in the past 2 IDC’s quarter storage market tracker, losing some percentage points in market share but I think Dell will continue to tinker to get it right.

2012 will be their watershed year.

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!

Amazon makes it easy

I like the way Amazon is building their Cloud Computing services. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is certainly on track to become the most powerful Cloud Computing company in the world. In fact, AWS might already is.  But they are certainly not resting on their laurels when they launched 2 new services in as many weeks – Amazon DynamoDB (last week) and Amazon Storage Gateway (this week).

I am particularly interested in the Amazon Storage Gateway, because it is addressing one of the biggest fears of Cloud Computing head-on. A lot of large corporations are still adamant to keep their data on-premise where it is private and secure. Many large corporations are still very skeptical about it even though Cloud Computing is changing the IT landscape in a massive way. The barrier to entry for large corporations is not something easy, but Amazon is adapting to get more IT divisions and departments to try out Cloud Computing in a less disruptive way.

The new service, is really about data storage and data backup for large corporations. This is important because large corporations have plenty of requirements for data storage and data to be backed up. And as we know, a large portion of the data stored does not need to be transactional or to be accessed frequently. This set of data is usually less frequently used, for archiving or regulatory compliance reasons, particular in the banking and healthcare industry.

In the data backup operations, the reason data is backed up is to provide a data recovery mechanism when a disaster strikes. Large corporations back up tons of data every day, weeks or month and this data only has value when there is a situation that requires data relevance, data immediacy or data recovery. Otherwise, it is just plenty of data taking up storage space, be it on disk or on tape.

Both data storage and data backup cost a lot of money, both CAPEX and OPEX. In CAPEX, you are constantly pressured to buy more storage to store the ever growing data. This leads to greater management and administration costs, both contributing heavily into OPEX costs. And I have not included the OPEX costs of floor space, power and cooling, people (training, salary, time and so on) typically adding up to 3-5x the operations costs relative to the capital investments. Such a model of IT operations related to storage cannot continue forever, and storage in the Cloud offers an alternative.

These 2 scenarios – data storage and data backup – are exactly the type of market AWS is targeting. In order to simplify and pacify large corporations, AWS introduced the Amazon Storage Gateway, that eases the large corporations to take some of their IT storage operations to the Cloud in the form of Amazon S3.

The video below shows the Amazon Storage Gateway:

The Amazon Storage Gateway is a piece of software “appliance” that is installed on-premise in the large corporation’s data center. It seamlessly integrates into the LAN and provides a SSL (Secure Socket Layer) connection to the Amazon S3. The data being transferred to the S3 is also encrypted with AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) 256-bit. Both SSL and AES-256 can give customers a sense of security and AWS claims that the implementation meets the data storage and data recovery standards used in the banking and healthcare industries.

The data storage and backup service regularly protects the customer’s data in snapshots, and giving the customer a rapid recovery platform should the customer experienced on-premise data corruption or data disruption. At the same time, the snapshot copies in the Amazon S3 can also be uploaded into Amazon EBS (Elastic Block Store) and testing or development environments can be evaluated and testing with Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). The simplicity of sharing and combining different Amazon services will no doubt, give customers a peace of mind, easing their adoption of Cloud Computing with AWS.

This new service starts with a 60-day free trial and moving on to a USD$125.00 (about Malaysian Ringgit $400.00) per gateway per month subscription fee. The data storage (inclusive of the backup service), costs only 14 cents per gigabyte per month. For 1TB of data, that is approximately MYR$450 per month. Therefore, minus the initial setup costs, that comes to a total of MYR$850 per month, slightly over MYR$10,000 per year.

At this point, I like to relate an experience I had a year ago when implementing a so-called private cloud for an oil-and-gas customers in KL. They were using the HP EVS (Electronic Vaulting Service) to an undisclosed HP data center hosting site in the Klang Valley. The HP EVS, which was an OEM of Asigra, was not an easy solution to implement but what was more perplexing was the fact that the customer had a poor understanding of what would be the objectives and their 5-year plan in keeping with the data protected.

When the first 3-4TB data storage and backup were almost used up, the customer asked for a quotation for an additional 1TB of the EVS solution. The subscription for 1TB was MYR$70,000 per year. That is 7x time more than the AWS MYR$10,000 per year cost! I have to salute the HP sales rep. It must have been a damn good convincing sell!

In the long run, the customer could be better off running their storage and backup on-premise with their HP EVA4400 and adding an additional of 1TB (and hiring another IT administrator) would have cost a whole lot less.

Amazon Web Services has already operating in Singapore for the past 2 years, and I am sure they are eyeing Malaysia as their regional market. Unless and until Malaysian companies offering Cloud Services know to use economies-of-scale to capitalize the Cloud Computing market, AWS is always going to be a big threat to CSP companies in Malaysia and a boon of any companies seeking cloud computing services anywhere in the world.

I urge customers in Malaysia to start questioning their so-called Cloud Service Providers if they can do what AWS is doing. I have low confidence of what the most local “cloud computing” companies can deliver right now. I hope they stop window dressing their service offerings and start giving real cloud computing services to customers. And for customers, you must continue to research and find out more which cloud services meet your business objectives. Don’t be flashed by the fancy jargons or technical idealism thrown at you. Always, always find out more because your business cost is at stake. Don’t be like the customer who paid MYR$70,000 for 1TB per year.

AWS is always innovating and the Amazon Storage Gateway is just another easy-to-adopt step in their quest for world domination.

Not all SSDs are the same

Happy Lunar New Year! The Chinese around world has just ushered in the Year of the Water Dragon yesterday. To all my friends and family, and readers of my blog, I wish you a prosperous and auspicious Chinese New Year!

Over the holidays, I have been keeping up with the progress of Solid State Drives (SSDs). I am sure many of us are mesmerized by SSDs and the storage vendors are touting the best of SSDs have to offer. But let me tell you one thing – you are probably getting the least of what the best SSDs have to offer. You might be puzzled why I say things like this.

Let me share with a common sales pitch. Most (if not all) storage vendors will tout performance (usually IOPS) as the greatest benefits of SSDs. The performance numbers have to be compared to something, and that something is your regular spinning Hard Disk Drives (HDDs). The slowest SSDs in terms of IOPS is about 10-15x faster than the HDDs. A single SSD can at least churn 5,000 IOPS when compared to the fastest 15,000 RPM HDDs, which churns out about 200 IOPS (depending on HDD vendors). Therefore, the slowest SSDs can be 20-25x faster than the fastest HDDs, when measured in IOPS.

But the intent of this blogger is to share with you more about SSDs. There’s more to know because SSDs are not built the same. There are write-bias SSDs, read-bias SSDs; there are SLC (single level cell) and MLC (multi level cell) SSDs and so on. How do you differentiate them if Vendor A touts their SSDs and Vendor B touts their SSDs as well? You are not comparing SSDs and HDDs anymore. How do you know what questions to ask when they show you their performance statistics?

SNIA has recently released a set of methodology called “Solid State Storage (SSS) Performance Testing Specifications (PTS)” that helps customers evaluate and compare the SSD performance from a vendor-neutral perspective. There is also a whitepaper related to SSS PTS. This is something very important because we have to continue to educate the community about what is right and what is wrong.

In a recent webcast, the presenters from the SNIA SSS TWG (Technical Working Group) mentioned a few questions that I  think we as vendors and customers should think about when working with an SSD sales pitch. I thought I share them with you.

  • Was the performance testing done at the SSD device level or at the file system level?
  • Was the SSD pre-conditioned before the testing? If so, how?
  • Was the performance results taken at a steady state?
  • How much data was written during the testing?
  • Where was the data written to?
  • What data pattern was tested?
  • What was the test platform used to test the SSDs?
  • What hardware or software package(s) used for the testing?
  • Was the HBA bandwidth, queue depth and other parameters sufficient to test the SSDs?
  • What type of NAND Flash was used?
  • What is the target workload?
  • What was the percentage weight of the mix of Reads and Writes?
  • Are there warranty life design issue?

I thought that these questions were very relevant in understanding SSDs’ performance. And I also got to know that SSDs behave differently throughout the life stages of the device. From a performance point of view, there are 3 distinct performance life stages

  • Fresh out of the box (FOB)
  • Transition
  • Steady State

 

As you can see from the graph below, a SSD, fresh out of the box (FOB) displayed considerable performance numbers. Over a period of time (the graph shown minutes), it transitioned into a mezzanine stage of lower IOPS and finally, it normalized to the state called the Steady State. The Steady State is the desirable test range that will give the most accurate type of IOPS numbers. Therefore, it is important that your storage vendor’s performance numbers should be taken during this life stage.

Another consideration when understanding the SSDs’ performance numbers are what type of tests used? The test could be done at the file system level or at the device level. As shown in the diagram below, the test numbers could be taken from many different elements through the stack of the data path.

 

Performance for cached data would given impressive numbers but it is not accurate. File system performance will not be useful because the data travels through different layers, masking the true performance capability of the SSDs. Therefore, SNIA’s performance is based on a synthetic device level test to achieve consistency and a more accurate IOPS numbers.

There are many other factors used to determine the most relevant performance numbers. The SNIA PTS test has 4 main test suite that addresses different aspects of the SSD’s performance. They are:

  • Write Saturation test
  • Latency test
  • IOPS test
  • Throughput test

The SSS PTS would be able