The Winds of Change

My reason for writing this article is that a wind of change is blowing through the storage market. The success of cloud storage such as Amazon S3 and Syncplicity has opened the way to new methods of archiving, making backups, and even disaster recovery. But the biggest disruptor is of course flash memory, and more specifically PCIe SSDs.

PCIe SSDs are not bandwidth limited by the SATA/SAS wiring and (if implemented well) protocol overhead. As a result, PCIe drives have up to three times as many channels of flash memory. And well-designed PCIe SSDs do not have to carry the burden of RAID controllers and protocols that were architectured for hard drives with completely different characteristics than flash memory. But even if they use a PCIe/SAS bridge, PCIe SSDs offer higher reliability and vastly superior performance than the best enterprise drives. But there is much more going on.

As PCIe SSDs offer large capacities (up to 10TB!) and performance in a very small form factor, they open new markets. It is interesting to see the completely new solutions that are now available, solutions that are much better suited for certain workloads. One example of a workload where traditional SANs fall short is virtual desktops.

Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops like Xendesktop or VMware View have been promising significant energy and cost savings, but these savings almost never materialize in reality. The energy saving claims made a few years ago were ridiculous; they were based on the assumption that we are still using power hogging desktops. Replace those with thin clients and you magically get massive energy savings.

The reality is that most of the IT professionals already use a 20-30W portable instead of an old 150W desktop, and the extra server load was not helping save energy either. Even if portables were not used, many business desktops today sip small amounts of energy. And if there was any miraculous energy saving, the additional complex storage system would be the final blow. The end result of desktop virtualization is often higher instead of lower energy bills. But perhaps worse is that knowledge workers hated most of the virtual desktops project with a passion. Suddenly several actions that used to complete without any noticeable response time became laggy.

Although there were serious costs savings if your desktop deployment and management was just organized chaos, every organization that replaced PCs with virtual desktops faced the need for huge investments. As lots of people boot up their virtual desktop in the morning, massive amounts of data is written and read in a rather random way: the so called “boot storm”. The solution was to boot up the desktops in a staggered way, tens of minutes before the arrival of the users, and to perform all kinds of special optimizations all over the software stack. But that is hardly more than a band-aid: what about unexpected hot fix patches, or what if people arrive a little bit earlier on occasion?

Data source: NetApp News 2013

Astute readers understand that the administration of virtual desktops is quite a bit more complex than the traditional setup with roaming profiles and saving files on a centralized file server. Only the most recent and high-end SANs could really deal with these specific requirements. Granted, some of the essential storage tasks like backup and archiving are a lot easier once you have a SAN in place… but mostly after you have invested in all kinds of expensive management software. When you start to invest in a complex SAN platform, the costs seem to multiply like rabbits.

In short, although a fast SAN seemed to be an enabler, they were also a deal breaker in the virtual desktop world. They're too slow and/or too expensive, and they're also power hungry.

Several companies feel they have a much better alternative and it is very interesting to see how the Fusion–IO and Intel PCIe SSDs are being turned into innovative and specialized alternatives for the typical SAN solution. Let's discuss a few of these over the next several pages.

Introduction: Enterprise Storage 101 Nutanix: No More SAN
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  • prime2515103 - Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - link

    I know, it just seems unprofessional. It's a tech article, not a chat room.
  • FunBunny2 - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    What is always missing from such essays (and this one reads more like a 'Seeking Alpha' pump piece) is a discussion of datastore structure. If you want speed and fewer bytes and your data isn't just videos, then an industrial strength RDBMS with a Organic Normal Form™ schema gets rid of the duplicate bytes. Too bad.
  • DukeN - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    But has there actually been any disruptions to the top dogs?

    EMC, NetApp, storage from HP/Dell/IBM, Hitachi all have had significant earnings increases yet again.

    So maybe a couple of new startups as well as FusionIO are making money now, but some of the big guys can probably just buy them out and shelf them.
  • davegraham - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    Look at EMC's acquisition of XtremeI/O...that's a viable competitor that EMC has already been able to integrate as a mainstream product. Oh, and they're also using Virident PCIe cards for server-side flash. ;)
  • DukeN - Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - link

    But is that really disruptive, or business as usual? These guys usually buy up smaller technologies as needed and integrate them if needed. Most of their core business (spinning disks) has remained the same.
  • bitpushr - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    XtremIO is still not a shipping product. It is not generally-available. So, I do not think this qualifies as "integrate as a mainstream product".

    Likewise their server-side Flash sales (Project Lightning) have been extremely slow.
  • phoenix_rizzen - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    If you ditch Windows on the desktop, you can do a lot more for a lot less.

    $22,000 for a Nutanix node to support a handful of virtual desktops? And you still need the VDI client systems on top of that? Pffft, for $3000 CDN we can support 200-odd diskless Linux workstations (diskless meaning they boot off the network, mount all their filesystems via NFS, and run all programs on the local system using local CPU, local RAM, local GPU, local sound, etc). The individual desktops are all under $200 (AMD Athlon-II X3 and X4, 2 GB of RAM, onboard everything; CPU fan is the only moving part) and treated like appliances (when one has issues, just swap it out for a spare).

    No licensing fees for the OS, no licensing fees for 90+% of the software in use, no exorbitant markup on the hardware. And all staff and students are happy with the system. We've been running this setup in the local school district for just shy of 10 years now. Beats any thin-client/VDI setup, that's for sure.
  • turb0chrg - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    Another vendor doing hybrid storage is Nimble Storage ( I've looked at their solution and it is quite impressive. It's not cheap though.

    They also claim to be the fastest growing storage vendor!
  • dilidolo - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    I have 2 of them for VDI, they work fine, but I wouldn't call it enterprise storage.
  • equals42 - Saturday, August 17, 2013 - link

    It's only iSCSI so you better like that protocol.

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