Storage: The new sexy
I was fortunate enough to attend VMworld 2012 in San Francisco this year! It is indeed a great privilege and I can’t thank Cisco enough for sending me. There were lots of announcements that were pretty cool from a UCS standpoint like UCS Central and the vCenter plugin. (These were demoed in the Cisco booth) There were cool announcements from VMware about Horizon and the Cloud Suite. etc. The sessions were great and the after hours events always entertaining (Although the food at the VMware party sucked compared to 2010). But among the madness of the myriad of messages there was one that stood out to me more than anything else: Flash Storage.
Remember when storage was boring? EMC, NetApp, blah blah blah. Well those days are gone. Its not so simple anymore. The shear number of storage vendors on the showroom floor was a clear illustration that storage is still an open frontier like the wild west, or even like a new season of American Idol… (OK, maybe that last one was a bad analogy)
Sure EMC still leads in market share and NetApp is the fastest growing, but there is plenty of room for disruption. There were several really good sessions on best practices for storage. One of my favorite quotes came from Duncan Epping (of YellowBricks and Clustering Deep dive author fame):
“We always blame the network for our problems but its usually the storage that is at fault”
Indeed we see this in practice quite a lot. People can’t buy more UCS because they’re constrained by their storage. The network seems easy enough to blame but as server administrators are getting more comfortable with networking (mostly because they have to since the network access layer is now inside the server at the vSwitch) they’re starting to get that right much more often than the storage.
One of my favorite sessions was a Gartner Storage Best Practices session. They had the following great messages:
“IOPS resolution is a multi dimensional problem that may not best addressed in the storage array”
This is why putting Fusion-io cards in a server may help with a tiered approach. (BTW, these were announced to be inside UCS Blades now and should be available before the end of 2012). It also explains why companies like Atlantis Computing with their ILIO product can offer big performance gains by offloading some of the work the storage array has to do as well as saving space.
This brings up another point from the Gartner session when talking about VDI (aka SHVD: server hosted virtual desktop)
“Storage costs present the #1 barrier to entry”
If you’re wondering when the year of the virtual desktop will come its when the organization has to buy new storage. Over 40% of data center budget for new equipment goes into storage. It pretty much pushes server and network equipment to the fringes. That’s why I don’t ever think there will be a ‘year’ of the virtual desktop. Instead, we’re in the beginning of the ‘decade of the virtual desktop’
The Tiered approach works as follows: You have fast disks ( SSDs), slower disks (FC, SAS) and then the slowest disks: SATA spinning at 7200 RPMS. Ideally you want the data you use the most (the master copy of a windows VM) sitting on the fast storage, swap files on the mid tier, and lesser used workloads sitting down at the bottom.
The issue with the tiered approach (which NetApp doesn’t really have except for maybe the flash cache which is read only) is that you have to put the workloads where you think they will be. And there’s a good chance you’ll get it wrong.
And that’s one reason there’s such a huge market out there for storage products that solve the issues of how to store and manage virtual machine files. It used to be the OS sat on the server and the local disk was the best you could do. Now with all of those VMs contending for IOPS, the storage is the bottleneck. The new sexy bottleneck. Sexy because there’s a lot of money to be made if you can convince people your solution is the best.
Using flash storage seems to be the sexy way to entice your customers. SSD arrays were all the rage at VMworld. Tiered solutions that allowed SSDs with FC/SAS/SATA were also quite popular. I thought I’d go through some of the storage solutions I had a chance to visit with at VMworld. Most of these are lesser known so it will be interesting to watch and see how the space changes in the next year:
The Violin 6000 Series flash memory array can do 1 million IOPS with 4Gbps of bandwidth in a 3RU space. The secret sauce is that they build their own flash memory controllers instead of using the standard SSDs that most flash array vendors use. This probably isn’t the cheapest but its hard to beat in terms of speed. This is the storage you buy when money is no object and you just want fast. Just imagining this connected to some Nexus 5000s and a UCS full of B200 M3s makes me all tingling inside.
I didn’t see Whiptail on the floor but I have helped 2 UCS customers configure this and get it running. Its cheaper and wicked fast, but offers little intelligence as to what is happening. Just cram a bunch of SSD drives into the array and lets you go to town. For some people, speed is all you need and they don’t care about fancy dashboards.
I had a great conversation with a great guy at Tintri at the vFlipCup event on Monday night… Wish I could remember his name. (BTW, I represented Team JBOD with @CiscoServerGeek and we apparently wrote checks that our team could not cache). …But I digress… Tintri seemed to be a mix of Atlantis Computing and Whiptail. Instead of having a VM do the block caching like ILIO does, you instead have that intelligence take place on the controller. Couple that with an array of SSDs and life looks pretty good. This seems better than Atlantis in that your chance of VM going down is greater than your chance of the storage array going down.
Two of the bigger booths of storage companies that I hadn’t heard of were Pure Storage and Tegile.
Pure Storage is a flash array vendor that seemed to have the most sophisticated protocol support including iSCSI (BTW: for the record I really don’t like iSCSI. When you have UCS, Fibre Channel is so easy and with the UCS Del Mar release later this year you have all the components you need for FCoE without buying any separate equipment)
Tegile is a hybrid array that supports tiered storage. The value is the deep integration with SSDs. I would look at this offering as a less confusing EMC offering. It offers SAN and NAS capabilities as well as data deduplication. Pretty sweet system.
It seems like all the providers have some great niches and I think most people would be happy with any of these storage solutions. I’d hate to leave this post without tipping my hat to EMC and NetApp who I work with and do a tremendous job. There’s a reason they both have so many customers: They build great products. I should also call out Hitachi Storage. Their own team admits they suck at marketing, but in terms of performance and reliability for mission critical apps, its hard to beat their rock solid solutions. Its truly a company built and run by engineers. That’s one reason their customers and me like them so much.
So if this post makes you feel all warm inside, that’s because storage is the new sexy and it is good for you to look at on company time.