Microsoft TechEd: Meet Violin’s Windows Flash Array

Although GA was announced in late April, this week’s Microsoft TechEd 2014 gathering in Houston was the coming-out party for Windows Flash Array from all- array and appliance vendor Violin Memory. Developed together with , is billed as the first all-flash storage array powered by Windows Storage Server 2012 R2.

Violin CMO Eric Herzog, who had previous stints at EMC and IBM, said they were the only flash storage vendor to jointly develop Windows Storage Server 2012 code. “We wrote some custom code, and Microsoft wrote some custom code.”

Microsoft technologies, such as Windows Server, SQL Server and Microsoft SharePoint, are already adopted by enterprises worldwide and growing dramatically, said Microsoft Corporate VP Bill Laing, in a canned quote. “By jointly developing this highly integrated solution with , we are working together to provide enterprise and cloud customers with dramatically improved performance, scalability, and economics for their Windows applications — virtualized, physical and cloud.”

Customer WFA beta results were impressive. The write performance with 2012 SQL Server was two times better, with read performance up to 50% higher over standard all-flash array connected via Fibre Channel. Write performance in Hyper-V environments was up to 40% higher.

Mike Leone, ESG (Enterprise Strategy Group) Lab Engineer, called the combination of the best of both worlds: Violin storage hardware and Microsoft storage software. ESG Lab VP Brian Garrett said they were “blown away” with WFA. “This unique partnership has created a one of a kind solution that dramatically increases the performance and efficiency of business-critical application workloads like Microsoft SQL Server and VDI.”

The ESG plug was just the tip of the iceberg. Violin managed to source a very impressive list of other storage gurus to provide positive quotes about the new offering, including IDC’s Eric Burgener, Flash Storage Research Director. “Bringing together these established benefits found in the 64TB Violin Memory All-Flash Array with Windows Storage Server 2012 R2, Microsoft and Violin have created a certified solution to improve the performance of Hyper-V, SQL server and SharePoint environments.”

Wikibon Chief Research Officer Dave Vellante called WFA unique in the market. “By embedding Windows management functionality into the storage controller, Microsoft and Violin are solving a problem we often hear from practitioners in the Wikibon community. Namely, that they don’t have the resources, skills or desire to deal with a separate storage management system.”

WFA delivers “blistering performance” for Microsoft workloads, said Marc Staimer, President, Dragon Slayer Consulting. “Microsoft and Violin cooperated and worked closely together to engineer and fine-tune Microsoft’s Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 with Violin’s Flash array to transparently supercharge Microsoft application performance. It looks like they’ve succeeded.”

Randy Kerns, Senior Strategist, Evaluator Group said the new solution “fundamentally changes” the way businesses can benefit from the features of Microsoft applications and systems. “The ability to utilize a very high performance flash storage system with the embedded features including encryption, deduplication, live migration, RDMA transfers, transparent failover, and scale out makes the Windows Flash Array the first of its kind on the market.”

Storage is typically the bottleneck to a better return on investment and a lower total cost of ownership for enterprises relying on Microsoft IT environments, stated David Hill, Principal, Mesabi Group. “Organizations who suffer from application and server sprawl will greatly benefit from the WFA that improves the capabilities of Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 to deliver rich file and storage services by putting Windows intelligence in the array.”

Organizations are in need of hardware greater than technical feeds and speeds, said Jim Bagley, Senior Analyst, SSG Now. “The new Violin Memory Windows Flash Array has the enterprise management features required to become a critical solution for companies who rely upon Microsoft applications to run their business.”

While many storage vendors rave about the value add of their systems being in the software stack and not in the flash-based hardware platform architected to get the best performance out of the chips, Violin and Microsoft take the best of both to build a one of its kind solution, said George Crump, Founder, Storage Switzerland. “By building Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 directly into Violin’s uniquely designed all-flash array, enterprises will find that their Microsoft applications, including Hyper-V, SQL Server and SharePoint will run at incredible rates to transform their business critical processes.”

Arun Taneja, Founder, Taneja Group, stated that in an apples to apples comparison, this Violin array will likely deliver greater performance improvement than the array without such deep integration with Microsoft. “Consequently, I expect that together the two companies will deliver better return on investment and lowered total cost ownership for high random I/O workloads like SQL server, large scale VDI and file server.”

Like many of its flash-centric peers – as opposed to the storage heavyweights like EMC, HP, HDS, IBM and Dell – Violin has been championing the demise of disk. Last August the company trumpeted that its flash Memory Array, at less than $5 per gigabyte, was cheaper than high-performance disk, providing twice the capacity, higher efficiency and triple the economics.

The rapid rise of flash and the eventual demise of spinning disk drives just makes sense, according to a blog earlier this year from Mark Peters, ESG Senior Analyst. “Now, I am certainly not being an apologist for the sudden overnight extinction of diskosaurus, but the rapid current move to deploy varying types of solid-state storage (across many devices, and in many iterations, sometimes just judiciously added and sometimes replacing chunks of spinning data) is certainly a glimpse of the future. It is too logical to ignore, as the price becomes more right for more of the data….”

Herzog said the joint development took about a year of effort, and while they’re currently the only flash vendor to have partnered with Microsoft on this, he doesn’t rule out other companies jumping in. Violin does not have a formal relationship with Microsoft that would preclude competition, he said, but they are being featured at a number of the upcoming global TechEd events.

Rather than look backward and worry about potential competitors, Violin is working on existing and upcoming partnerships, said Herzog. In addition to announcements with SAP, Oracle and Citrix, Violin will be announcing certification with SAP HANA shortly, he said. “We work with all of these guys.”

The Fiddly Bits (& Bytes)

Jointly developed by Violin Memory and Microsoft, Windows Flash Array (WFA) is the first all-flash storage array powered by Windows Storage Server 2012 R2, enabling enterprise and cloud workloads, such as SQL Server, SharePoint and Windows Server with Hyper-V virtualized applications.

Customer benefits WFA include thin provisioning, data deduplication, scalability and encryption along with space efficient snapshots and continuous availability, through Windows failover clustering. Testing by Microsoft reveals that the Server Message Block (SMB) Direct protocol, enabled by remote direct memory access (RDMA), can reduce CPU overhead by up to 30%.

Customers beta testing WFA with 2012 SQL Server reported up to two times the write performance and up to 50% higher read performance, compared to an industry standard all-flash array connected via Fibre Channel. In Hyper-V environments, WFA achieved up to 40% higher write performance in customer beta tests.


Author: Steve Wexler

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