IT execs explain their moves to solid-state storage

Four companies show how performance boosts can make expensive NAND flash technology cost-effective

Fred Abounader, a performance systems engineer at chip maker AMD, recently deployed a 6TB all-NAND flash storage array into a virtual server test environment.

The result, he said, was astounding.

In AMD's virtualization benchmarking test environment, the SSD array helped reduce latency by a factor of 50 and yielded a 40% improvement in performance compared to hard disk arrays.

Although the system was operating in a test environment, the data was real, compiled from emails, databases, and Web 2.0 applications -- it even included data migrations between VMs. "It was like a real life data center," Abounader said.

The goal of the test was to see if AMD could overcommit its servers and still get the performance it needed on the back end without being bottlenecked. The experiment was an overwhelming success, Abounader said.

With just one 6TB flash array from WhipTail, the system was able to achieve 86,000 I/Os per second (IOPS) for virtual machines that typically saw only 6,000 IOPS using a SAN with 400 15,000-rpm hard drives connected by a Fibre Channel network.

Now AMD is looking to scale out its SSD environment even further.

"It's been installed for a few months now, and we've run it pretty hard," Abounader said. "There have been zero issues."

Picking up momentum

Abounader is part of a small but fast-growing universe of enterprise users who have deployed flash storage. In a recent TheInfoPro survey of 255 IT managers and storage admins, 37% of the respondents said that they plan to deploy SSD technology, up from just 7% in 2011.

Adoption of more-expensive all-flash arrays has been slower -- only 7% of the respondents said they that are currently using them, while 86% said the technology isn't in their IT plans at this time. About 4% of the respondents indicated that they plan to purchase all-flash arrays in six to 18 months, and 2% said they expect to do so after 18 months.

Industry experts say that those who aren't using NAND flash are missing out on the huge performance advantages that the technology can offer. And they contend that purchasing NAND flash doesn't have to break the bank.

"Every big organization has got to be looking at having a full range of solid-state devices if they don't want to be left behind," said Mark Peters, an analyst at ESG. "Solid-state storage is not one thing. It has the potential to be even broader than spinning disk products."

"We see that flash is starting to change the business world," said Kobi Rozengarten, a managing partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP). "Magnetic media formerly used for storage is starting to move toward solid-state flash, mostly because of performance and partially because of lower power and smaller form factor."

JVP, a leading Israeli venture capital firm that invests in media technology companies, manages more than $900 million in eight investment funds. EMC in May paid some $430 million for one of its technology investments, XtremIO, an Israeli maker of all-flash primary storage arrays.

Rozengarten said the next step is for flash to be used as a primary storage medium, not just in virtual tape libraries to speed backups. But that move that is happening far more slowly than many experts had anticipated.

"Flash is basically an unreliable device if it's just operated as flash. That's one reason for the slow uptake," he said, citing the need for better flash management software.

Virident's FlashMAX flash module is used at Vail Systems.
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