On-Server Flash: More than Just Memory

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    Server-side Flash is one of those technologies that gets little notice outside of storage circles but has the potential to remake the data environment as profoundly as virtualization and cloud computing.

    The name of the computing game these days is speed, not capacity, and CIOs already jazzed about boosting the performance of the storage array are in for an even bigger treat by putting Flash modules directly on the server. However, there are pitfalls here, along with a range of configuration options that could impact performance on select workloads.

    Samsung upped its stake in the server-side Flash game recently with the launch of the SM1715 card, which leverages the company’s 3D V-NAND drive with the NVMe PCIe interface to deliver up to 740,000 4K IOPS and 3.0/2.2 GBps read/write bandwidth. What’s more, the device is rated for 10 full drive writes per day for five years, easing up some of the lingering fears over Flash’s lack of durability in production enterprise environments. Total capacity is 3.2 TB, which isn’t tops in the industry, but again, most Flash deployments are geared for speed, not size.

    Putting Flash close to processing cores is a great way to improve performance, says PernixData’s Jeff Aaron for Silicon Angle, but unless you can deploy Flash across the entire server farm at once you’re not going to get consistent performance across the entire infrastructure. This is a particular problem for virtual environments that switch hosts on a regular basis, and it’s a big part of the reason why hyperconverged solutions have garnered so much attention as of late. With hyperconvergence, you get a clustered pool of local Flash that accelerates reads and evens out the flow of data to primary storage. The downside is that it requires a fork-lift upgrade, which is why Aaron and others argue for a software-based aggregation solution that addresses both the performance requirements of the server while leveraging existing shared storage capacity.

    Indeed, a key contributor to successful Flash deployment in the server farm is the management software. Western Digital’s HGST unit recently released the latest version of the Virident Solutions acceleration and management stack that offers 16-node clustering and Ethernet support, allowing PCIe-based resources to tap into wider SAN and/or NAS arrays. Key features include advanced sharing and sync across clustered resources, plus logical volume management that allows applications to access only the portion of select volumes that they need, helping to optimize resource utilization.

    Of course, the elephant in the Flash room is SanDisk, fresh off its acquisition of FusionIO. The company is mostly known for its consumer-facing products, but has been steadily increasing its enterprise capabilities through companies like SMART Storage Systems and Pliant Technology. With FusionIO on board, SanDisk has access to powerful server-side solutions like the Atomic Series cards, not to mention virtualization and acceleration software and even a hybrid appliance, the ioControl. The company is on record as saying it wants to push enterprise sales from today’s $433 million to more than $1 billion by 2015, but the question is whether that growth will come from increased sales or the acquisition of new product lines.

    Regardless of how the business side shakes out, on-server memory is slated to become a common practice in the data center, both as a means to improve the performance of virtual infrastructure and to lay the groundwork for Big Data, social media and other high-speed applications.

    Flash still has a way to go on the reliability and durability fronts before we can seriously consider the all-Flash enterprise data center (although the all-Flash cloud data center is a distinct possibility), but that should not diminish the technology’s importance in next-generation data environments.

    If you have a need for speed, on-server Flash is your best bet.

    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.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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