Solid in the Fire

December 22 2015: I kept this blog in draft for 6 months. Now I am releasing it as NetApp acquires Solidfire.

真金不怕紅爐火

The above is an old Chinese adage which means “True Gold fears no Fire“. That is how I would describe my revisited view and assessment of SolidFire, a high performance All-Flash array vendor which is starting to make its presence felt in South Asia.

I first blogged about SolidFire 3 years ago, and I have been following the company closely as more and more All-Flash array players entered the market over the 3 years. Many rode on the hype and momentum of flash storage, and as a result, muddied and convoluted the storage infrastructure market understanding. It seems to me spin marketing ruled the day and users could not make a difference between vendor A and vendor B, and C and D, and so on….

I have been often asked, which is the best All-Flash array today. I have always hesitated to say which is the best because there aren’t much to say, except for 2-3 well entrenched vendors. Pure Storage and EMC XtremIO come to mind but the one that had stayed under the enterprise storage radar was SolidFire, until now.

SolidFire Logo

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Solid?

The next all-Flash product in my review list is SolidFire. Immediately, the niche that SolidFire is trying to carve out is obvious. It’s not for regular commercial customers. It is meant for Cloud Service Providers, because the features and the technology that they have innovated are quite cloud-intended.

Are they solid (pun intended)? Well, if they have managed to secure a Series B funding of USD$25 million (total of USD$37 million overall) from VCs such as NEA and Valhalla, and also angel investors such as Frank Slootman (ex-Data Domain CEO) and Greg Papadopoulus(ex-Sun Microsystems CTO), then obviously there is something more than meets the eye.

The one thing I got while looking up SolidFire is there is probably a lot of technology and innovation behind their  Nodes and their Element OS. They hold their cards very, very close to their chest, and I couldn’t not get much good technology related information from their website or in Google. But here’s a look of how the SolidFire is like:

The SolidFire only has one product model, and that is the 1U SF3010. The SF3010 has 10 x 2.5″ 300GB SSDs giving it a raw total of 3TB per 1U. The minimum configuration is 3 nodes, and it scales to 100 nodes. The reason for starting with 3 nodes is of course, for redundancy. Each SF3010 node has 8GB NVRAM and 72GB RAM and sports 2 x 10GbE ports for iSCSI connectivity, especially when the core engineering talents were from LeftHand Networks. LeftHand Networks product is now HP P4000. There is no Fibre Channel or NAS front end to the applications.

Each node runs 2 x Intel Xeon 2.4GHz 6-core CPUs. The 1U height is important to the cloud provider, as the price of floor space is an important consideration.

Aside from the SF3010 storage nodes, the other important ingredient is their SolidFire Element OS.

Cloud storage needs to be available. The SolidFire Helix Self-Healing data protection is a feature that is capable of handling multiple concurrent failures across all levels of their storage. Data blocks are replicated randomly but intelligently across all storage nodes to ensure that the failure or disruption of access to a particular data block is circumvented with another copy of the data block somewhere else within the cluster. The idea is not new, but effective because solutions such as EMC Centera and IBM XIV employ this idea in their data availability. But still, the ability for self-healing ensures a very highly available storage where data is always available.

To address the efficiency of storage, having 3TB raw in the SF3010 is definitely not sufficient. Therefore, the Element OS always have thin provision, real-time compression and in-line deduplication turned on. These features cannot be turned off and operate at a fine-grained 4K blocks. Also important is the intelligence to reclaim of zeroed blocks, no-reservation,  and no data movement in these innovations. This means that there will be no I/O impact, as claimed by SolidFire.

But the one feature that differentiates SolidFire when targeting storage for Cloud Service Providers is their guaranteed volume level Quality of Service (QOS). This is important and SolidFire has positioned their QOS settings into an advantage. As best practice, Cloud Service Providers should always leverage the QOS functionality to improve their storage utilization

The QOS has:

  • Minimum IOPS – Lower IOPS means lower performance priority (makes good sense)
  • Maximum IOPS
  • Burst IOPS – for those performance spikes moments
  • Maximum and Burst MB/sec

The combination of QOS and storage capacity efficiency gives SolidFire the edge when cloud providers can scale both performance and capacity in a more balanced manner, something that is not so simple with traditional storage vendors that relies on lots of spindles to achieve IOPS performance sacrificing capacity in the process. But then again, with SSDs, the IOPS are plenty (for now). SolidFire does not boast performance numbers of millions of IOPS or having throughput into the tens of Gigabytes like Violin, Virident or Kaminario, but what they want to be recognized as the cloud storage as it should be in a cloud service provider environment.

SolidFire calls this Performance Virtualization. Just as we would get to carve our storage volumes from a capacity pool, SolidFire allows different performance profiles to be carved out from the performance pool. This gives SolidFire the ability to mix storage capacity and storage performance in a seemingly independent manner, customizing the type of storage bundling required of cloud storage.

In fact, SolidFire only claims 50,000 IOPS per storage node (including the IOPS means for replicating data blocks). Together with their native multi-tenancy capability, the 50,000 or so IOPS will align well with many virtualized applications, rather than focusing on a 10x performance improvement on a single applications. Their approach is more about a more balanced and spread-out I/O architecture for cloud service providers and the applications that they service.

Their management is also targeted to the cloud. It has a REST API that integrates easily into OpenStack, Citrix CloudStack and VMware vCloud Director. This seamless and easy integration, is more relevant because the CSPs already have their own management tools. That is why SolidFire API is a REST-ready, integration ready to do just that.

The power of the SolidFire API is probably overlooked by storage professionals trained in the traditional manner. But what SolidFire API has done is to provide the full (I mean FULL) capability of the management and provisioning of the SolidFire storage. Fronting the API with REST means that it is real easy to integrate with existing CSP management interface.

Together with the Storage Nodes and the Element OS, the whole package is aimed towards a more significant storage platform for Cloud Service Providers(CSPs). Storage has always been a tricky component in Cloud Computing (despite what all the storage vendors might claim), but SolidFire touts that their solution focuses on what matters most for CSPs.

CSPs would want to maximize their investment without losing their edge in the cloud offerings to their customers. SolidFire lists their benefits in these 3 areas:

  • Performance
  • Efficiency
  • Management

The edge in cloud storage is definitely solid for SolidFire. Their ability to leverage on their position and steering away from other all-Flash vendors’ battlezone could all make sense, as they aim to gain market share in the Cloud Service Provider space. I only wish they can share more about their technology online.

Fortunately, I found a video by SolidFire’s CEO, Dave Wright which gives a great insight about SolidFire’s technology. Have a look (it’s almost 2 hour long):

[2 hours later]: Phew, I just finished the video above and the technology is solid. Just to summarize,

  • No RAID (which is a Godsend for service providers)
  • Aiming for USD5.00 or less per Gigabyte (a good number!)
  • General availability in Q1 2012

Lots of confidence about the superiority of their technology, as portrayed by their CEO, Dave Wright.

Solid? Yes, Solid!

Battle of flash racks coming soon

The battle is probably already here. It has just begun for rack mounted flash-based or DRAM-based (or both) storage systems.

We have read in the news about the launch of EMC’s Project Lightning, and I wrote about it. EMC is already stirring up the competition, aiming its guns at FusionIO. Here’s a slide from EMC comparing their VFCache with FusionIO.

Not to be outdone, NetApp set its motion to douse the razzmatazz of EMC’s Lightning, announcing the future availability of their server-side flash software (no PCIe card) but it will work with major host-based/server-side PCIe Flash cards. (FusionIO, heads up). Ah, in Sun Tsu Art of War, this is called helping your buddy fight the bigger enemy.

NetApp threw some FUDs into the battle zone, claiming that EMC VFCache only supports 300GB while the NetApp flash software will support 2TB, NetApp multiprotocol, and VMware’s VMotion, DRS and HA. (something that VFCache does not support now).

The battle of PCIe has begun.

The next battle will be for the rackmounted flash storage systems or appliance. EMC is following it up with Project Thunder (because thunder comes after lightning), which is a flash-based storage system or appliance. Here’s a look at EMC’s preliminary information on Project Thunder.

And here’s how EMC is positioning different storage tiers in the following diagram below (courtesy of VirtualGeek), being glued together by EMC FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) technology.

But EMC is not alone, as there are already several prominent start-ups out there, already offering flash-based, rackmount storage systems.

In the battle ring, there is Kaminario K2 with the SPEAR (Scale-out Performance Storage Architecture), Violin Memory with Violin Switched Memory (VXM) architecture, Purestorage Purity Operating Environment and SolidFire’s Element OS, just to name a few. Of course, we should never discount the grand daddy of all flash-based storage – Texas Memory Systems RamSAN.

The whole motion of competition in this new arena is starting all over again and it’s exciting for me. There is so much to learn about newer, more innovative architecture and I intend to share more of these players in the coming blog entries. It is time to take notice because the SSDs are dropping in price, FAST! And in 2012, I strongly believe that this is the next battle of the storage players, both established and start-ups.

Let the battle begin!

 

SSDs rising in the flood crisis

The Thailand flood last year spelled disaster to the storage industry. We have already seen several big boys in the likes of HP, EMC and NetApp announcing the rise of prices because of the flood.

NetApp’s announcement is here; EMC is here; and HP is here, if you want to read about it. Below is a nice and courteous EMC letter to their customers.

But the Chinese character of “crisis” (below) also spells opportunities; opportunities for Solid State Drives (SSDs) that is.

For those of us close to the ground, the market for spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) has certainly been challenging for the past few months, especially for smaller system providers like us. Without the leveraging powers of the bigger boys, we practically had to beg to buy HDDs, not to mention the fact that the price has practically doubled.

Before the Thailand flood crisis, the GB/$ of a 2TB HDD was 0.325 Malaysian ringgit per GB. That’s about 33 cents. Today, the price is about 55 cents per GB. In comparison, at least from my experience, the GB/$ of SSDs has gone down from $5.83 to $4.99.

I know some of you might pooh-pooh the price difference between a 2TB SATA/SAS and a 120GB SSD, partly because the SSD seems so expensive. But when you consider that doing the math, the SSDs is likely to be 50x faster (at worst average) and 200x faster (at best average) for applications requiring IOPS, this could mean that transactional applications are likely to be completed an average of 100x faster, with better response time, with lower latency. This will have a domino effect on other related applications, making the entire service request performing and completing faster. When we put a price to the transactional hours, for example $10/hour work, then we can see the cost savings coming from using SSDs in the storage.

Interestingly, a friend of mine asked me about the prominence of an all SSDs storage systems. I have written about all SSDs systems in the past, and also did a high overview of Pure Storage some time back. And a very interesting fact I recalled was these systems having massive amount of IOPS. Having plenty of IOPS helps because you do away with Automated Storage Tiering (AST) because you don’t have to tier your data, and you don’t have to pay for such a feature.

Yes, all-SSDs pure-play storage systems are gaining prominence and it’s time to take notice. Nimbus beat NetApp and HP 3PAR last year to win eBay with an all SSDs storage solution and other players such as Violin Memory Systems, Pure Storage, SolidFire and of course, Texas Memory Systems (aka RAMSAN). And they are attracting big names into their management portfolios and getting VC dollars of course.

The Thailand flood aftermath will probably take 6 months or more to return to its previous production capacity prior to the crisis and SSDs can take this window of opportunity in the crisis to surge ahead. And if this flood is going to be an annual thing for Thailand (God bless Thailand), HDD market is going to have a perennial problem. And SSDs is going to rise even faster.