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!

About cfheoh

I am a technology blogger with 20+ years of IT experience. I write heavily on technologies related to storage networking and data management because that is my area of interest and expertise. I introduce technologies with the objectives to get readers to *know the facts*, and use that knowledge to cut through the marketing hypes, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and other fancy stuff. Only then, there will be progress. I am involved in SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) and as of October 2013, I have been appointed as SNIA South Asia & SNIA Malaysia non-voting representation to SNIA Technical Council. I was previously the Chairman of SNIA Malaysia until Dec 2012. As of August 2015, I am returning to NetApp to be the Country Manager of Malaysia & Brunei. Given my present position, I am not obligated to write about my employer and its technology, but I am indeed subjected to Social Media Guidelines of the company. Therefore, I would like to make a disclaimer that what I write is my personal opinion, and mine alone. Therefore, I am responsible for what I say and write and this statement indemnify my employer from any damages.
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