Time for Fujitsu Malaysia to twist and shout and yet …

The worldwide storage market is going through unprecedented change as it is making baby steps out of one of the longest recessions in history. We are not exactly out of the woods yet, given the Eurozone crisis, slowing growth in China and the little sputters in the US economy.

Back in early 2012, Fujitsu has shown good signs of taking market share in the enterprise storage but what happened to that? In the last 2 quarters, the server boys in the likes of HP, IBM and Dell storage market share have either shrunk (in the case of HP and Dell) or tanked (as in IBM). I would have expected Fujitsu to continue its impressive run and continue to capture more of the enterprise market, and yet it didn’t. Why?

I was given an Eternus storage technology update by the Fujitsu Malaysia pre-sales team more than a year ago. It has made some significant gains in technology such as Advanced Copy, Remote Copy, Thin Provisioning, and Eco-Mode, but I was unimpressed. The technology features were more like a follower, since every other storage vendor in town already has those features.

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Xtreme future?

EMC acquisition of XtremIO sent shockwaves across the industry. The news of the acquisition, reported costing EMC USD$430 million can be found here, here and here.

The news of EMC’s would be acquisition a few weeks ago was an open secret and rumour has it that NetApp was eyeing XtremIO as well. Looks like EMC has beaten NetApp to it yet again.

The interesting part was of course, the price. USD$430 million is a very high price to pay for a stealthy, 2-year old company which has 2 rounds of funding totaling USD$25 million. Why such a large amount?

XtremIO has a talented team of engineers; the notable ones being Yaron Segev and Shahar Frank. They have their background in InfiniBand, and Shahar Frank was the chief architect of Exanet scale-out NAS (which was acquired by Dell). However, as quoted by 451Group, XtremeIO is building an all-flash SAN array that “provides consistently high performance, high levels of flash endurance, and advanced functionality around thin provisioning, de-dupe and space-efficient snapshots“.

Furthermore, XtremeIO has developed a real-time inline deduplication engine that does not degrade performance. It does this by spreading the write I/Os over the entire array. There is little information about this deduplication engine, but I bet XtremIO has developed a real-time, inherent deduplication file system that spreads all the I/Os to balance the wear-leveling as well as having scaling performance. I bet XtremIO will dedupe everything that it stores, has a B+ tree, copy-on-write file system with a super-duper efficient hashing algorithm for address mapping (pointers) with this deduplication file system. Ok, ok, I am getting carried away here, because it is likely that I will be wrong, but I can imagine, can’t I? (more…)

SAP wants to kill Oracle

It’s not new. SAP has been trying to do it for years but with little success. SAP applications and its modules still very much rely on the Oracle database as its core engine but all that that could change within the next few years. SAP has HANA now.

I thought it is befitting to use the movie poster of “Hanna” (albeit an extra “N” in the spelling) to portray SAP who clearly has Oracle in its sights now, with a sharpened arrow head aimed at the jugular of the Oracle beast. (If you haven’t watched the movie, you will see the girl Hanna, using the bow and arrow to hunt a large reindeer).

What is HANA anyway? It was previously an analytics appliance in SAP HANA 1.0SP2. Its key component is the HANA in-memory database (IMDB) and it was not aimed for the general purpose, relational database market yet. Or perhaps, that’s what SAP wants Oracle to believe. (more…)

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!

Violin pulling the strings

Violin Memory is in our shores as we speak. There are already confirmed news that an EMC veteran in Singapore has joined them and will be surfacing soon in the South Asia region.

Of all the all-Flash storage systems I have on my platter, Violin Memory seems to be the only one which is ready for IPO this year, after having taking in USD$75 million worth of funding in 2011. That was an impressive number considering the economic climate last year was not so great. But what is so great about Violin Memory that is attracting the big money? Both Juniper Networks and Toshiba America are early investors.

I am continuing my quest to look at all-Flash storage systems, after my blogs on Pure Storage, Kaminario and SolidFire. (Actually, I wanted to write about another all-Flash first because it keeps bugging me with its email .. but I feeling annoyed about that one right now). Violin Memory is here and now.

From a technology standpoint, there are a few key technologies, notably their vRAID and their Violin Switched Memory architecture (vXM), both patent pending. Let’s explore these 2 technologies.

At the core of Violin Memory is the vXM, a proprietary, patent-pending memory switching fabric, which Violin claims to be the first in the industry. The architecture uses high speed, fault tolerant memory controllers and FPGA (field programmable gate arrays) to switch between corresponding, fully redundant elements of VIMMs (Violin Inline Memory Modules). The high level vXM architecture is shown below:

 

VIMMs are the building blocks that are the culmination of memory modules, which can be from different memory types. The example below shows the culmination and aggregation of Toshiba MLC chips, which eventually bore the VIMMs and further consolidation into the full capacity Flash array.

The memory switching fabric of the vXM architecture enables very high speed in data switching and routing, and hence Violin can boast of having “spike-free latency“, something we in this industry desperately need.

Another cool technology that Violin has is their hardware-based vRAID. This is a RAID algorithm that is designed to work with Flash and other solid state storage devices. I am going through the Violin Memory white paper now and the technology is some crazy, complicated sh*t. This is presented in their website about the low latency, vRAID:

 

I don’t want to sound stupid writing about the vRAID now, and I probably need to digest the whitepaper several times in order to understand the technology better. And I will let you know once I have a fair idea of how this works.

More about Violin Memory later. Meanwhile, a little snag came up when a small Texas company, Narada Systems filed a suit of patent infringement against Violin on January 5, 2012. The suit mentioned that the vXM has violated the technology and intellectual property of patent #6,504,786 and #7,236,488 and hence claiming damages from Violin Memory. You can read about the legal suit here.

Whether this legal suit will affect Violin Memory is anybody’s guess but the prospects of Violin Memory going for IPO in just a few short years validates how the industry is looking at solid state storage solutions out there.

I have already mentioned a handful solid state storage players who are I called “all-Flash”, and from the Network Computing sites, blogger Howard Marks revealed 2 more stealth-mode, solid state start-ups in XtremIO and Proximal Data. This validates the industry’s confidence in solid state storage, and in 2012, we are going to see a goldrush in this technology.

The storage industry is dying for a revamp in the performance side, and living the bane of poor spinning disks performance for years, has made the market hungry for IOPS, low latency and throughput. Solid state storage is ripe and I hope this will trigger newer architectures in storage, especially RAID. Well done, Violin Memory!

 

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.

 

Does all SSDs make sense?

I have been receiving a lot of email updates from Texas Memory Systems for many months now. I am a subscriber to their updates and Texas Memory System is the grand daddy of flash and DRAM-based storage systems. They are not cheap but they are blazingly fast.

Lately, more and more vendors have been coming out with all SSDs storage arrays. Startups such Pure Storage, Violin Memory and Nimbus Data Systems have been pushing the envelope selling all SSDs storage arrays. A few days ago, EMC also announced their all SSDs storage array. As quoted, the new EMC VNX5500-F utilizes 2.5-in, single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash drives to 10 times the performance of the hard-drive based VNX arrays. And that is important because EMC has just become one of the earliest big gorillas to jump into the band wagon.

But does it make sense? Can one justify to invest in an all SSDs storage array?

At this point, especially in this part of the world, I predict that not many IT managers are willing to put their head on the chopping board and invest in an all SSDs storage array. They would become guinea pigs for a very expensive exercise and the state of the economy is not helping. Therefore the automatic storage tiering (AST) might stick better than having an all SSDs storage array. The cautious and prudent approach is less risky as I have mentioned in a past blog.

I wrote about Pure Storage in a previous blog and the notion that SSDs will offer plenty of IOPS and throughput. If the performance gain translates into higher productivity and getting the job done quicker, then I am all for SSDs. In fact, given the extra performance numbers

There is no denying that the fact that the industry is moving towards SSDs and it makes sense. That day will come in the near future but not now for customers in these part of the world.