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IBM Bets Big on Enterprise SSD Flash Storage

IBM may be looking to get out of the commodity x86 server business but it's making a major bet on extending the use of solid state disk (SSD)-based flash storage technology in the datacenter, which holds the promise of enabling faster transactional and analytical applications. At the same time Big Blue believes it can be used for mainstream workloads such as boosting performance and removing latency of key operational systems such as Exchange Server, SharePoint and SQL Server.

I attended an analyst and press briefing last week at IBM's New York office, where the company trotted out its top technology execs to kick off a major corporate initiative to advance SSD-based flash. In addition to investing $1 billion over the next three years to extend its flash technology and to integrate it into its server, storage and middleware portfolio, IBM is opening 12 centers of competencies around the world for customers and partners to test and conduct proofs of concept using its flash-based arrays.

Though IBM and its rivals have offered SSDs in their storage systems over the past several years, Big Blue believes the economics of flash storage make it increasingly more viable for enterprise and cloud-based systems, which led to its last year's acquisition of industry leader Texas Memory Systems.

Steve Mills, IBM's senior vice president and group executive for software and systems, pegged the price of low-cost disk drives at $2 per gigabyte and high-performance disks costing $6 per gigabyte. While SSD-based flash costs about $10 per gigabyte, Mills argued that because only a portion of spinning disk can actually be used in high-performance systems, the actual cost is also around $10 per gigabyte.

"This is such a profound tipping point," Mills said at last week's event. "There's no question that flash is the least expensive, most economical and highest-performance solution." Over the past decade, processor, memory, network, and bus speed and performance has increased tenfold while the speed of mechanical hard disk drives [HDDs] remains the same, according to Mills. "It has lagged," he said.

"We clearly think that the time [for flash] has come," he added. "This idea of using semiconductor technology to store information on a durable basis is what flash is all about."

Specifically, flash can also offer substantially faster transaction speeds -- on average just 200 microseconds compared with 3 milliseconds, Mills noted. "By reducing the amount of time, the IO wait that the database in the system is experiencing, you're able to accomplish more," he said.

Several customers were on hand to validate Mills' argument, including Karim Abdullah, director of IT operations at Sprint, which tied IBM's FlashSystem to an IBM SAN Volume Controller (SVC) to improve access to the wireless provider's 121 distributed call centers worldwide. The volume of calls to Sprint's call center increased dramatically two years ago when the company offered its unlimited data plan, leading to much higher volumes of database queries. "It provided a 45-fold boost in access to that piece of data," Abdullah said of the flash systems.

Al Candela, head of technical services at Thomson Reuters, implemented the flash arrays to build a trading system that could offer much lower latency than the existing architecture with HDDs allowed. "I saw benefits of a 10x improvement in throughput and a similar achievement in latency," Candela said.

While some of these early implementations are aimed at very large scale, high performance computing systems, it also could be used to boost the performance of commodity servers and Windows Server-based systems, said Ed Walsh, VP of marketing and strategy for IBM's system storage business unit. "We see it being used uniformly across Microsoft platforms, Linux platforms, Power platforms and to be honest mainframes," he told me

Mark Peters, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group said flash from IBM and others is rapidly moving from niche/vertical/specialist workloads, such as HPC, to more general workloads including Exchange Server SharePoint. "People running Microsoft based systems could absolutely find it appealing," Peters said.

Texas Memory Systems traditionally targeted high-end HPC workloads. "IBM's ownership and focus will swing it to the commercial side way more and faster," Peters said.

In addition allowing systems like Exchange to run faster, Mills said the ability to read and write from flash storage means applications will require fewer server cores, meaning licensing fees for database, operating system and virtualization software, as well as other line-of-business apps, will be much lower.

While that may be true, that doesn't mean some software companies won't try to compensate by raising their licensing fees, warned PundIT analyst Charles King. "Oracle, as an exemplar, a company that hasn't been shy about adjusting its pricing schema to ensure its profits in the face of emerging technologies," King said. "However, that could also work in IBM's favor. If the company keeps the licensing cost of DB2 steady and Oracle attempts to rejigger its own pricing, the result could make IBM's new FlashSystem solutions look even more compelling."

Because of the much smaller footprint -- Mills described a two-foot rack of flash systems capable of storing a petabyte of data -- datacenter operators can lower their costs by 80 percent, including the power and cooling expenses.

As noted, IBM is not the only company touting SSDs. A growing number of companies such as SolidFire and STORServer are targeting flash storage to enterprises and cloud providers. Incumbent storage system provides like EMC, Hewlett-Packard and NetApp also offer flash technology. Likewise, key public Infrastructure as a Service cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and others offer SSD-based storage.

"IBM claims its hardware-based approach offers better performance than what it called 'flash coupled' software-centric solutions from major competitors like EMC and HP, and it didn't really address smaller and emerging players," King said. "Overall, it's going to take some time to sort out who's faster/fastest and what that means to end users, but IBM's argument for the value of flash was broader and sounder than most pitches I've heard."

Scott Lowe, whose Random Access column debuted on last week, warned:  "Solid state disks still remain orders of magnitude more expensive than hard disks. Many array solutions include powerful deduplication and other data reduction features that can help to address the capacity question while still providing incredible performance for workloads that need it, such as VDI and big data. Here, the cost per IOPS is low, but the cost per GB is high." Lowe cited SSD flash as one of five options in a modern storage topology.

Do you see using SSD flash in your storage infrastructure? Drop me a line at [email protected].



Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 04/19/2013 at 1:15 PM


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