No Flash in the pan

The storage networking market now is teeming with flash solutions. Consumers are probably sick to their stomach getting a better insight which flash solution they should be considering. There are so much hype, fuzz and buzz and like a swarm of bees, in the chaos of the moment, there is actually a calm and discerning pattern slowly, but surely, emerging. Storage networking guys would probably know this thing well, but for the benefit of the other readers, how we view flash (and other solid state storage) becomes clear with the picture below: Flash performance gap

(picture courtesy of

Right at the top, we have the CPU/Memory complex (labelled as Processor). Our applications, albeit bytes and pieces of them, run in this CPU/Memory complex.

Therefore, we can see Pattern #1 showing up. (more…)

Correcting NCQ incorrect portrayal with SSDs

A kind reader, Baruch Even, has pointed out my ignorance with SATA Native Command Queuing (NCQ) working with Solid State Drives (SSDs) in my previous blog.

In the post, I have haphazardly stated that NCQ was meant for spinning mechanical drives. I was wrong.

NCQ does indeed improve the performance of SSDs using SATA interfaces, and sometimes as much as 15-20%. I know there is a statement in the SATA Wikipedia page that says that NCQ boosted IOPS by 100% but I would take a much more realistic view of things rather than setting the expectations too high.

The typical SSD consists of flash storage spread across multiple chips, which in turn are a bunch of flash packages. Within each of the flash packages, there are different dies (as in manufacturing terminology “die”, not related to the word of “death”) that houses planes (not related to aeroplanes) and subsequently into blocks and pages.


Boosting Solid States beyond SATA

Lately, I have been getting deeper and deeper into low-level implementation related to storage technologies. In my previous blog, I was writing my learning adventure with Priority Flow Control (PFC) and intend to further the Data Center Bridging concepts with future blog entries.

Before I left for Sydney for a holiday last week, I got sidetracked into exciting stuff that’s happening in my daily encounters with friends and new friends. 2 significant storage related technologies fell onto my lap. One is NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory express) and the other FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array).

While this blog is going to be about NVMe, I actually found FPGA much more exciting to me. Through conversations, I found that there are 2 “biggies” in the FPGA world, and they are designed and manufactured by Xilink and Altera. I admit that I have not done my homework on FPGA yet, having just returned from Sydney last night. I will blog about FPGA in future blogs.

But NVMe is also an important technology direction to the storage world as well.

I think most of us are probably already mesmerized by solid state drives. The bombardment of marketing, presentations, advertising and whatever else the vendors do to promote (and self-promote) solid state drives are inundating the intellectual senses of consumers and enterprises alike. And yet, many vendors do not explain both the pros and cons of integrating solid states into their IT environment. Even worse, many don’t even know the strengths and weaknesses of solid states, hence creating some exaggeration that continues to create a spiral vortex of inaccuracies. Like a self-feeding frenzy, the industry seems to have placed solid state storage as the saviour of the enterprise storage world. Go figure with that!


The big boys better be flash friendly

An interesting article came up in the news this week. The article, from the ever popular The Register, mentioned 3 up and rising storage stars, Nimble Storage, Tintri and Tegile, and their assault on a flash strategy “blind spot” of the big boys, notably EMC and NetApp.

I have known about Nimble Storage and Tintri for a couple of years now, and I did take some time to read up on their storage technology offering. Tegile is new to me when it appeared on my radar after announced as the Gold Winner of the enterprise storage category for 2012.

The Register article intriqued me because it implied that these traditional storage vendors such as EMC and NetApp are probably doing a “band-aid” when putting together their flash storage strategy. And typically, I see these strategic concepts introduced by these 2 vendors:

  1. Have a server-side cache strategy by putting a PCIe card on the hosting server
  2. Have a network-based all-flash caching area
  3. Have a PCIe-based flash card on the storage system
  4. Have solid state drives (SSDs) in its disk shelves enclosures

In (1), EMC has VFCache (the server side caching software has been renamed to XtremSW Cache and under repackaging with the Xtrem brand name) and NetApp has it FlashAccel solution. Previously, as I was informed, FlashAccel was using the FusionIO ioTurbine solution but just days ago, NetApp expanded the LSI Nytro WarpDrive into its FlashAccel solution as well. The main objective of a server-side caching strategy using flash is to accelerate mostly read-based I/O operations for specific application workloads at the server side.


Say VDI very fast

This one bugs me.

All the talk about Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and how VDI is the next IN thing is beginning to look like hulla baloo to me. Every storage vendor in town is packaging their VDI messaging in the best gift wrapping paper possible, trying to win the hearts of potential customers. But I have a creeping feeling that the customers in Malaysia and even perhaps some in the region are going to be disappointed when all the fluff and huff of VDI meets reality.

I have to admit that I have no experience with VDI. I have no implementation experience, and I have no selling experience of VDI, but having gone through the years looking and observing at the centralized computing and thin client space, history could be repeating itself (again!). Many previous pre-VDI experiences have fallen flat on the face.

Remember the days of X-terminals, early versions of thin clients? Remember the names such as NCD (Network Computing Devices), Wyse Technologies (they were recently acquired by Dell), SCO Tarantella and the infamous Javastation? I don’t know about you, but that Javastation design was one ugly motherf****r.

So, it is my pleasure to remind you again and hopefully give you some nightmares too ;-)

Back to VDI. Yes, the thin-client/zero-client/remote desktop/VDI concept is a great idea! I would have love VDI to be successful. It will be the implementation and the continuous user complaints that will be the bane of its problems. Ultimately, it’s the user’s experience that counts. (more…)

APIs that stick in Storage

The competition in storage networking and data management is forever going to get fiercer. And there is always going to be the question of either having open standards APIs or proprietary APIs because storage networking and data management technologies constantly have to balance between gaining a competitive advantage with proprietary APIs  or getting greater market acceptance with open standards APIs.

The flip side, is having proprietary APIs could limit and stunt the growth of the solution but with much better integration and interoperability with complementary solutions. Open standards APIs could make the entire market a plain, vanilla one where there is little difference between technology A or B or C or X, and in the long run, could give lesser incentive for technology innovation.

I am not an API guy. I do not code or do development work on APIs, but I do like APIs (Application Programming Interface). I have my fair share of APIs which can be considered open or proprietary depending on who you talk to. My understanding is that an API might be more open if there are many ISVs, developers and industry supporters endorsing it and have a valid (and usually profit-related) agenda to make the API open.

I can share some work experience with some APIs I have either worked in the past or give my views of some present cool APIs that are related to storage networking and data management.

One of the API-related works I did was with the EMC Centera. I was working with Schlumberger to create a file-level archiving/lifecycle management solution for the GeoFrame seismic files with the EMC Centera. This was back in 2008.

EMC Centera does not present itself as a NAS box (even though I believe, IDC lumps Centera sales numbers to worldwide NAS market figures, unless I am no longer correct chronologically) but rather through ISVs and application-level integration with the EMC Centera API. Here’s a high-level look of how the EMC Centera talks to application with the API.

Note: EMC Centera can also present a NAS integration interface through NFS, CIFS, HTTP and FTP protocols, but the customer must involve (may have to purchase) the EMC Centera Universal Access software appliance. This is for applications that do not have the level of development and integration to interface with the EMC Centera API. 


Expensive hard disk is good

No, I don’t mean to be bad, but the spinning HDDs’ prices will remain high even if the post-Thailand flood production has resumed to normalcy.

According to IHS iSuppli, a market research intelligence firm, the prices will continue to hold steady and will not fall to pre-flood level until 2014. The reason is simple. The prices of the hard disk drives are pretty much dictated by the only 2 real remaining hard disk companies in the world – Seagate and Western Digital. These guys controls more than 85% of the hard disk market and as demand of HDDs outstrips supply, the current hard disk prices are hitting the bottom line hard for just about everyone.

But the bad news is turning into good news for solid state storage devices. NAND-Flash based devices are driving a new clan of storage start-ups in the likes of Violin Memory, Kaminario, Pure Storage and Virident. The EMC acquisition of XtremIO was a strong endorsement that cements the cornerstone of all enterprise storage arrays to come. Even the Register predicted that the EMC VMAX will be the last primary storage array before the flash tsunami.

The NAND-Flash solid state of multi-level cells (MLCs) and single level cells (SLCs) and even triple level cells (TLCs) are going through birth, puberty, adolescent extremely fast because the demand for faster and faster IOPS, throughput and lower latency is hitting at full speed. And it is likely that all the xLCs (SLCs, MLCs and TLCs) could go through cycle in an extremely short lifespan, because there is a new class of solid state that is pushing the performance-price envelope closer and closer to speed of DRAM but with the price of Flash. This new type of solid state is Storage Class Memory (SCM). (more…)

“I want to put in my own hard disk”

I want to put in my own hard disk“.

If a customer ever utter that sentence, it will trigger a storage vendor meltdown. Panic buttons, alarm bells, and everything else that will lead a salesman to go berserk. That’s a big NO, NO!

For decades, storage vendors have relied on proprietary hardware to keep customers in line, and have customers continue to sign hefty maintenance contracts until the next tech refresh. The maintenance contract, with support, software upgrades and hardware spares replacement, defines the storage networking industry that we are in. Even as some vendors have commoditized their hardware on the x86 platforms, and on standard enterprise hard disk drives (HDDs), NICs and HBAs, that openness and convenience of commodity hardware savings are usually not passed on the customers.

It is easy to explain to customers that keeping their enterprise data in reliable and high performance storage hardware with performance optimization and special firmware is paramount, and any unwarranted and unvalidated hardware would put the customer’s data at high risk.

There is a choice now. The ripple of enterprise-grade, open storage kernel and file system has just started its first ring, and we hope that this small ripple will reverberate across the storage industry in the next few years.


Server way of locked-in storage

It is kind of interesting when every vendor out there claims that they are as open as they can be but the very reality is, the competitive nature of the game is really forcing storage vendors to speak open, but their actions are certainly not.

Confused? I am beginning to see a trend … a trend that is forcing customers to be locked-in with a certain storage vendor. I am beginning to feel that customers are given lesser choices, especially when the brand of the server they select for their applications  will have implications on the brand of storage they will be locked in into.

And surprise, surprise, SSDs are the pawns of this new cloak-and-dagger game. How? Well, I have been observing this for quite a while now, and when HP announced their SMART portfolio for their storage, it’s time for me to say something.

In the announcement, it was reported that HP is coming out with its 8th generation ProLiant servers. As quoted:

The eighth generation ProLiant is turbo-charging its storage with a Smart Array containing solid state drives and Smart Caching.

It also includes two Smart storage items: the Smart Array controllers and Smart Caching, which both feature solid state storage to solve the disk I/O bottleneck problem, as well as Smart Data Services software to use this hardware

From the outside, analysts are claiming this is a reaction to the recent EMC VFCache product. (I blogged about it here) and HP was there to put the EMC VFcache solution as a first generation product, lacking the smarts (pun intended) of what the HP products have to offer. You can read about its performance prowess in the HP Connect blog.

Similarly, Dell announced their ExpressFlash solution that ties up its 12th generation PowerEdge servers with their flagship (what else), Dell Compellent storage.

The idea is very obvious. Put in a PCIe-based flash caching card in the server, and use a condescending caching/tiering technology that ties the server to a certain brand of storage. Only with this card, that (incidentally) works only with this brand of servers, will you, Mr. Customer, be able to take advantage of the performance power of this brand of storage. Does that sound open to you?

HP is doing it with its ProLiant servers; Dell is doing it with its ExpressFlash; EMC’s VFCache, while not advocating any brand of servers, is doing it because VFCache works only with EMC storage. We have seen Oracle doing it with Oracle ExaData. Oracle Enterprise database works best with Oracle’s own storage and the intelligence is in its SmartScan layer, a proprietary technology that works exclusively with the storage layer in the Exadata. Hitachi Japan, with its Hitachi servers (yes, Hitachi servers that we rarely see in Malaysia), already has such a technology since the last 2 years. I wouldn’t be surprised that IBM and Fujitsu already have something in store (or probably I missed the announcement).

NetApp has been slow in the game, but we hope to see them coming out with their own server-based caching products soon. More pure play storage are already singing the tune of SSDs (though not necessarily server-based).

The trend is obviously too, because the messaging is almost always about storage performance.

Yes, I totally agree that storage (any storage) has a performance bottleneck, especially when it comes to IOPS, response time and throughput. And every storage vendor is claiming SSDs, in one form or another, is the knight in shining armour, ready to rid the world of lousy storage performance. Well, SSDs are not the panacea of storage performance headaches because while they solve some performance issues, they introduce new ones somewhere else.

But it is becoming an excuse to introduce storage vendor lock-in, and how has the customers responded this new “concept”? Things are fairly new right now, but I would always advise customers to find out and ask questions.

Cloud storage for no vendor lock-in? Going to the cloud also has cloud service provider lock-in as well, but that’s another story.


We raid vRAID

I took a bit of time off to read through Violin’s vRAID technology because I realized that vRAID (other than Violin’s vXM architecture) is the other most important technology that differentiates Violin Memory from the other upstarts. I blogged at a high-level about Violin a few entries ago, and we are continuing Violin impressive entrance with a storage technology that have been around for almost 25 years – RAID. Incidentally, I found this picture of the original RAID paper (see below):

Has RAID evolved with solid state storage? Evidently, no, because I have not read of any vendors (so far) touting any RAID revolution in their solid state offerings. There has been a lot of negative talks about RAID, but RAID has been the cornerstone and the foundation of storage ever since the beginning. But with the onslaughts of very large capacity HDDs, the demands of packing more bits-per-inch and the insatiable needs for reliability, RAID is slowly beginning to show its age. Cracks in the armour, I would say. And there are many newer, slightly more refined versions of RAID, from the Network RAID-style of HP P4000 or the Dell EqualLogic, to the RAID-X of IBM XIV, to innovations of declustered RAID in Panasas. (Interestingly, one of the early founders of the actual RAID concept paper, Garth Gibson, is the founder of Panasas).

And the new vRAID from Violin-System doesn’t sway much from the good ol’ RAID, but it has been adapted to address the issues of Solid State Devices.

Solid State devices (notably NAND Flash since everyone is using them) are very different from the usual spinning disks of HDDs. They behave differently and pairing solid state devices with the present implementations of RAID could be like mixing oil and water. I am not saying that the present RAID cannot work with solid state devices, but has RAID adapted to the idiosyncrasies of Flash?

It is like putting an old crank shaft into a new car. It might work for a while, but in the long run, it could damage the car. Similarly, conventional RAID might have detrimental performance and availability impact with solid state devices. And we have hardly seen storage vendors coming up to say that their RAID technology has been adapted to the solid state devices that they are selling. This silence could likely mean that they are just adapting to market requirements and not changing their RAID codes very much to take advantage of Flash or other solid state storage for that matter. Violin Memory has boldly come forward to meet that requirement and vRAID is their answer.

Violin argues that there are bottlenecks at the external RAID controller or software RAID level as well as use of legacy disk drive interfaces. And this is indeed true, because this very common RAID implementation squeezes performance at the expense of the other components such as CPU cycles.

Furthermore, there are plenty of idiosyncrasies in Flash with things such as erase-first, then write mechanism. The nature of NAND Flash, unlike DRAM, requires a block to be erased first before a write to the block is allowed. It does not “modify” per se, where the operations of read-modify-write is often applied in parity-based RAIDs of 5 and 6. Because of this nature, it is more like read-erase-write, and when the erase of the block is occurring, the read operation is stalled. That is why most SSDs will have impressive read latency (in microseconds), but very poor writes (in milliseconds). Furthermore, the parity-based RAID’s write penalty, can further aggravate the situation when the typical RAID technology is applied to NAND Flash solid state storage.

As the blocks in the NAND Flash build up, the accumulation of read-erase-write will not only reduce the lifespan of the blocks in the NAND Flash, it will also reduce the IOPS to a state we called Normalized Steady State. I wrote about this in my blog, “Not all SSDs are the same” some moons ago. In my blog, SNIA Solid State Storage Performance Testing Suite (SSS-PTS), there were 3 distinct phases of a typical NAND Flash SSD:

  • Fresh of out the Box (FOB)
  • Transition
  • Steady State
This performance degradation is part of what vendors call “Write Cliff”, where there is a sudden drop in IOPS performance as the NAND Flash SSD ages. Here’s a graph that shows the performance drop.
Violin’s vRAID, implemented within its switched vXM architecture itself, and using proprietary high performance flash controllers and the flash-optimized vRAID technology, is able deliver sustained IOPS throughout the lifespan of the flash SSD, as shown below:
To understand vRAID we have to understand the building blocks of the Violin storage array. NAND Flash chips of 4GB are packed into a Flash Package of 8 giving it 32GB. And 16 of these 32GB Flash Package are then consolidated into a 512GB VIMM (Violin Inline Memory Module). The VIMM is the starting block and can be considered as a “disk”, since we are used to the concept of “disk” in the storage networking world. 5 of these VIMMs will create a RAID group of 4+1 (four data and one parity), giving the redundancy, performance and capacity similar to RAID-5.
The block size used is 4K block and this 4K block is striped across the RAID group with 1K pages each on each of the VIMMs in the RAID group. Each of this 1K page is managed independently and can be placed anywhere in any flash block in the VIMMs, and spread out for lowest possible latency and bandwidth. This contributes to the “spike free latency” of Violin Memory. Additionally, there is ECC protection within each 1K page to correct flash bit error.
To protect against metadata corruption, there is an additional, built-in RAID Check bit to correct the VIMM errors. Lastly, one important feature that addresses the read-erase-write weakness of NAND Flash, the vRAID ensures that the slow erases never block a Read or a Write. This architectural feature enable spike-free latency in mixed Read/Write environments.
Here’s a quick overview of Violin’s vRAID architecture:
I still feel that we need a radical move away from the traditional RAID and vRAID is moving in the right direction to evolve RAID to meet the demands of the data storage market. Revolutionary and radical it may not be, but then again, is the market ready for anything else?
As I said, so far Violin is the only all-Flash vendor that has boldly come forward to meet the storage latency problem head-on, and they have been winning customers very quickly. Well done!