All-Flash Data Center Inches A Little Closer To Mainstream

While a fire sale of disk-based storage systems is not imminent – just look at how hard it’s been to kill off the 60-year-old tape technology – the adoption of flash-based storage in the data center is accelerating and all-flash environments are no longer just a vendor’s fantasy. Just over a week ago Fusion-io announced its ioScale product which provides up to 3.2 terabytes with prices starting at $3.89 per gigabyte, and is targeted at growing webscale and emerging cloud companies.

Designed with input from the company’s hyperscale customers like Google and Facebook, the new line addresses requirements for price, rack density and reliability. Hyperscale companies architect their infrastructure with bare bones servers and open source software that scales-out cost-effectively in the hundreds and thousands, said David Floyer, Wikibon Chief Technology Officer, in a prepared statement.

“These organizations focus on capital expenses; this is very different from the operating expense focus seen at traditional enterprises that implement feature-rich infrastructure with long lifespans. The data requirements of these hyperscale companies are growing astronomically fast, much faster than the enterprise market. The design of the ioScale flash memory products will enable Fusion-io to reach a broader range of webscale and cloud companies, including the emerging hyperscale leaders who will power the services consumers will enjoy in an always-connected world.”

Analyst Jim Bagley, Storage Strategies Now, said that with the announcement, Fusion-io continues its ‘firstest with the mostest’ strategy, with the aggressive pricing as a new weapon in its arsenal. ‘Its size and focus, while threatened by flash foundry operators like Micron and SanDisk, and silicon giant Intel, should keep it in a good position going forward. Making pricing concessions at the hundred-unit level helps address Fusion-io’s reliance on a handful of giant customers, like FaceBook and Apple’.

While flash is gaining ground, disk isn’t going away, said Floyer, but flash is going to capture a bigger slice of the data-center storage pie because flash is going to dramatically change how things are done. “Flash allows much larger amounts of data in and out, much faster and can be put in different parts of the infrastructure.”

Flash-based drives – SSDs – provide huge performance gains over HDDs, but using flash as an extension of memory, like Fusion-io, further increases that performance, he said, and latency-sensitive applications like database really benefit. “The faster you can write it to the disk, the faster you can get if from the disk, the better the database works.”

He said one Fusion-io customer that used its technology for its databases saw a 30% improvement in productivity. “That’s a huge benefit. People will start to write applications in a completely different way… combining analytical data with operational data, something that previously couldn’t be done.”

According to IDC, the SSD market grew 105% in 2011, reaching $5 billion in revenue, and shipments were expected to increase to at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 51.5% from 2010 to 2015. While the bulk of this growth is coming from the consumer/PC markets, the adoption of SSDs as a complementary solution to HDD storage for enterprise applications is also driving SSD market growth.

“The increasing use of flash in enterprise solutions, explosive growth of mobile client devices, and lower SSD pricing is creating a perfect storm for increased SSD shipments and revenue over our forecast,” stated IDC’s Jeff Janukowicz, research director, Solid State Storage and Hard Disk Drive Components, in a report last year.

Another report in July from 451 Research said host-based flash, i.e. Fusion-io, is arguably an even hotter market than the all-flash-array space. ‘The most tangible benefit to justify the installation of flash within a server is the ability to put flash at a close proximity to server CPUs, which allows for performance with microsecond latency rates in contrast to milliseconds for external fiber channel or iSCSI SAN-attached flash storage systems,’ stated analyst Henry Baltazar. ‘While the difference between microseconds and milliseconds may seem trivial to a layperson, when you take into account the fact that complex virtualization infrastructures could be pushing hundreds of thousands or millions of IOPS, a few milliseconds of latency can add up quickly and lead to performance degradation.’

From a capacity perspective, flash used as a cache or a tier in arrays still only accounts for about 2% of capacity deployed, said 451, but close to 66% of respondents have deployed flash in their arrays or have it in their future acquisition plans. Adoption on the server side of the market has progressed at a slower rate, with 23% of respondents either deploying or having plans for server-side flash, but there is a growing excitement around the technology. ‘We can expect to see stronger deployment numbers in the future as well-known players such as EMC, NetApp and Dell ramp up their server-based flash sales and marketing engines.’

For his predictions for 2013, Dave Raffo, SearchSolidStateStorage, said to look for major vendors to have all-flash arrays while expanding server-side flash products, more innovation from startups, larger capacity drives and a significant shrinking of the number of flash companies due to acquisitions. Following the ioScale announcement, he said Fusion-io is the early market leader, but it has plenty of competition, with LSI, Intel, BitMicro, STEC, OCZ and Virident Systems all selling PCIe flash.

‘EMC is promising “Project Thunder,” a shared storage system using PCIe flash to go with its single-server VFCache product, launched in 2012. QLogic also has Mt. Rainier coming with similar technology. Earlier this week, Violin Memory acquired GridIron Systems, whose TurboCharger appliance sits between the server and storage to accelerate data, for flash cache SAN acceleration.’

Floyer said that magnetic storage will always be cheaper and will be where the majority of data will be kept. While in the not-too-distant future all active data will be on flash, there will be many more times that data held on disk. If disk isn’t going away, high-performance disk will disappear rather rapidly, he said. “Low-performance disk, and even low-performance tape will go on,” for data that needs to be stored but will probably never need to be accessed again.

Looking ahead, Floyer said there will be companies large enough to have flash-only attached to the server, and flash arrays, but for smaller companies, a hybrid solution combining flash and disk will be the way to go.



Author: Steve Wexler

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