Does Flash Plus Intelligence Equal the New Primary Storage Tier?

Arthur Cole
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Five Innovations in the Data Storage Landscape

Primary storage is quickly giving way to all-Flash arrays, a sign that competitive pressures to speed up data transfer and overall performance are superseding any lingering concerns about reliability and availability.

But does the enterprise run a long-term risk for what is essentially an immediate gain, or will the benefits of distributed architectures and pooled storage make up for Flash’s perceived weakness in read/write performance and long-term durability?

Violin Memory is one of the chief boosters of Flash as a primary storage solution. The company’s latest 7300 and 7700 arrays feature the new Concerto OS 7 and Symphony 3 software stacks that deliver many of the same deduplication and clustering capabilities that the enterprise currently utilizes in its disk infrastructure. This allows the platform to support distributed, scale-out architectures offering up to 1.3 petabytes of storage per name space coupled with intelligent automation for real-time database and analytics applications. At the same time, the company says it has removed the final cost barriers to all-Flash storage, allowing it to compete against legacy disk architectures on performance and cost-per-transaction metrics.

IBM is gearing up its all-Flash portfolio as well. The company recently launched the FlashSystem 900 and V9000, the latest result of a nearly $1 billion R&D effort, into solid state technology. Both platforms are intended to integrate directly with legacy storage environments to provide high-speed support for real-time analytics while occupying about a quarter of the rack space of equivalent disk storage. IBM is also touting the platform’s durability, even under modern production workloads, with a seven-year full-replacement guarantee for individual NAND drives. The platforms feature MLC Flash from Micron, as well as IBM’s own FlashCore software that supports high-speed data transfer and both scale up and scale out architectures up to 2.2PB.

All-Flash is also grabbing the attention of the rising software-defined storage industry as companies like VMware accent the performance benefits of rapid data access and retrieval. The company recently announced support for Flash in the Virtual SAN 6 platform, a move that is intended to convince enterprise executives that the system is ready for the jump from secondary to primary storage. Flash support will also augment other key advances, such as scalability to 8PB over 64 nodes and throughput of 7 million IOPS, which will ultimately deliver an all-software data environment built on VMware’s underlying abstract architecture.

For those concerned about over-reliance on a single-vendor virtual architecture, however, note that a number of independent developers are targeting Flash for an intelligent primary storage tier. DataGravity, for one, is looking to bridge the gap between the need to treat data as a commodity for storage but as high-value information when it comes to delivery, says Storage Switzerland’s George Crump. To do this, the Discovery Series platform leverages advanced indexing and metadata management to provide “data aware storage.” This is a step above simple tiering and caching in that it brings a high degree of intelligence to discovery, governance, protection and other functions within the primary storage architecture without diminishing the performance of dedupe, compression and the like. 


The key challenge that these and other primary storage platforms face is in getting the enterprise to view storage in a new light. Advanced virtual and cloud environments break down the need for purpose-built storage infrastructure in exchange for a more fungible data ecosystem in which users and applications can easily compile the resource sets that offer the greatest balance between cost and performance.

Flash will most certainly comprise a significant portion of those resources, but its designation as primary, secondary or otherwise won’t take place until it is provisioned within a virtual architecture.

In that light, the enterprise would do best to view Flash not in terms of what it will do once it is deployed, but what it can do when someone expresses a need for storage.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

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