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Windows Storage Gets Flashy

A partnership with Violin Memory to meld Windows Storage Server into an all-flash array boosts Microsoft's storage play.

Windows Storage Server (WSS) 2012 is a bit of a dark horse as far as the storage industry goes. It doesn’t get a huge amount of press, which is unfortunate, since it now is a well-rendered “software-defined storage” system.  It's designed to bring Windows-based file and block appliances to Windows Server 2012, Hyper-V, and MS SQL Server. It offers SMB and NFS interfaces for files and iSCSI for block, so it's very much an Ethernet solution.

Now, Violin Memory's new WSS 2012-based all-flash array brings super performance to WSS users and allows them to match the performance of all-flash arrays used on traditional Fibre-Channel SANs. This places Microsoft in the major leagues in storage, and gives it a story to match EMC and NetApp in terms of appliances.

Before getting into the details of the new all-flash array, let's look a little closer at WSS 2012 to get some perspective on what this new development brings. It’s a cloud-ready product with multi-tenancy support, and scale-out ability. External RAID storage can be connected to an appliance for storage expansion -- useful with bulk storage models, and legacy array re-use, though the choice of certified arrays is currently limited.

Versions of the code can deploy in Hyper-V virtual machines, making for a good deal of flexibility. With compression and block-level deduplication available across the Windows Server 2012 family as well as on WSS, concepts like source-based file size reduction offer benefits both in used storage capacity and network loading.

Microsoft has approached WSS 2012  from an enterprise-ready perspective, so robust features are available for failover and redundant pathing. This allows Microsoft to offer a large-scale enterprise version as well as a SMB "workspace" version with size and feature constraints. Products using WSS range from rackable appliances to small 4- to 6-drive tower systems.

Microsoft is responding to the changes in technology well.  The Storage Spaces feature is designed to handle SSD and bulk storage tiering. Storage Spaces is a caching system, where hot data is moved to SSD, while cold data heads back to bulk HDD. Both read-caching and a write-back cache are provided so data being read and written benefit.

Storage Spaces provides a way for virtual desktops to be deployed quickly. Common files can be served up from deduplicated and compressed space, reducing load times, and VDI images can be delivered rapidly from SSD cache. This really speeds up loading, but doesn’t match the leading-edge performance of all-flash arrays.

Violin's WSS 2012-based all-flash array changes the picture by ramping up performance for WSS users.

The new Windows Flash Array appliance is more tightly coupled to application servers than typical flash arrays, and the performance metrics reported by Violin reflect that. The company claims speeds of around 2x the performance of a non-Windows flash array in an SQL Server setup, and of course this is way faster than a traditional HDD array.

Violin also discusses use cases such as VDI host storage and in Hyper-V environments. It claims radical real-life improvements in performance, run-time and latency. The new array promises capacities up to 256 TB  by clustering, and the units are built standard with redundant WSS server blades, power, and fans for enterprise-standard operation.

The product is tuned to deliver data into the app server memory using SMB Direct and RDMA, which cuts out a lot of overhead and latency. More importantly, it reflects what a Software-Defined Storage system could look like in the future. The array is symbiotic with the host software environment, and tuned to the application use cases.

The architecture is tuned to in-memory SQL Server database operation, which benefits from the speed and low latency of data delivery directly into memory. Host-side compression/deduplication boost performance and reduce data footprints.

I expect we’ll see similar close-coupled solutions for VMware farms and VDI servers from EMC, with VMWare filing the role of collaborator and integrator that Microsoft has with Violin. If so, application server performance is well set to exceed Moore’s Law for a while, with the boost from in-memory operation compounded by super-fast app-sensitive arrays like the Windows Flash Array.

This may be the future of big iron storage companies, as the need for many large HDD arrays goes away, and inexpensive white-box bulk storage appliances and fast flash arrays take a larger share of the market. Indeed, that thought process may have fueled Red Hat's purchase of Inktank.

 

 

Jim O'Reilly was Vice President of Engineering at Germane Systems, where he created ruggedized servers and storage for the US submarine fleet. He has also held senior management positions at SGI/Rackable and Verari; was CEO at startups Scalant and CDS; headed operations at PC ... View Full Bio
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MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/2/2014 | 5:09:21 PM
Violin recovery?
I wonder if this will help Violin Memory as it tries to recoup and reorganize after its disastrous IPO last fall and subsequent executive management shakeup?
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/4/2014 | 2:53:39 AM
Flash Array is the Trend
It's no surprise that Windows Storage gets flashy - flash array is the future trend from technical point of view. It's fast and reliable compared to traditional HDD. But traditional HDD will prevail for quite sometime - the cost is rather low and the performance is rather stable. SSD has undergone leap-forward recently. Now it's easy to purchase 1TB SSD from the market, though the price is still a little bit expensive.
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Ninja
5/4/2014 | 12:36:40 PM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
While I agree that disk will be around for a while, it will be as a second-tier bulk storage device. All of the performance drive/Enterprise drive market will move to SSD and flash and is in fact doing so quickly.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/5/2014 | 11:14:17 AM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
Hi Jim -- To Li Tan's point, what do you see happening with SSD prices? Is flash becoming more affordable?
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Ninja
5/5/2014 | 11:58:02 AM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
SSD pricing is a bit of an urban myth today. When we see comparisons, they are of top-line "Enterprise" SSD and bulk HDD. ($2000 versus $65  per terabyte).

What this ignores is that there are 1 TB SSD hitting the market for ;ess than the cost of the Enterprise HDD that they will replace. These aren't as fast as the race-car drives at the high prices, but they outperform the Enterprise HDD by around 100x or more.

These SSD are good enough for a lot of Enterprise usage, even if they have a shorter wear life. This problem can be overcome by limiting the drive to say 80 percent capacity - that's a major part of how the enterprise drives achieve longer wear life.


SSD prices are likely to drop further in 2014 with new denser packaging bringing production costs down and increasing capacity. The first 4TB SSD was just announced, btw.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/5/2014 | 1:16:57 PM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
Thanks for the insight into SSD pricing Jim.

The first 4TB SSD you mention must be the SanDisk Optimus Max? The SanDisk press release talks a lot about it making SSDs a cost effective alternative to HDDs; it would have been interesting if the company had provided pricing detail.
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Ninja
5/5/2014 | 1:45:26 PM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
I talked to Sandisk about new product releases, and couldn't get pricing. I think the reason they are cagey on pricing is that the market is going to see competitors soon, and price will be a major differentiator.

My take is the push to take the market from hard drives is well underway!
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/5/2014 | 8:04:46 PM
Re: Flash Array is the Trend
That makes sense. It'll be interesting to see how the pricing shapes up once competitors introduce products.
cld9731
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cld9731,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/25/2014 | 2:32:34 PM
Benchmarks.
It may well help Violin Memory recover. Pricing and competition is everything on that front. They are trying some pay-as-you-go pricing gimmicks where they ship you a larger capacity array than you order and if you decide to use it you pay for the remaining storage. (It ends up being very expensive)  

One aspect, when you look into the benchmarks, they cite AFA (All Flash Array) as the competing array.  No mention is made of what that is, nor how it is configured. Inquiries on what the AFA is have so far been met with silence. Having come from the software world where benchmarks are standardized (via SPEC) I find the benchmarks I've seen to be somewhat suspect.

BTW. On the benchmark front and if we swallow the bait whole,  I noticed recently that Fusion IO's flash card supports the in-memory feature of SQL Server 2014 and is giving excellent results giving 30x faster transactions with in-memory OLTP, 100x query speeds.  http://www.fusionio.com/SQL2014

 

 
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Ninja
7/25/2014 | 3:00:54 PM
Re: Benchmarks.
@cld9731, the art of benchmarking is a combination of facts, half-truths and wild claims. Most companies are guilty of all three, and it's difficult to find clear winners. My rule of thumb is twicew as fast for half the price - that usually stops debate.

The key on Violin's new product isn't speed and price, as you suggest. It's the fact that Windows Storage Server is fully integrated, and that this ties in withWindows Server being easily interfaced to it.

For reference, look at the new SMB release and what it does when connected to Windows.

For Fusion IO, the quaestions is what it is compared with. Oracle's Ellison claims 100x performance inmprovement for in-memory databases, compsred with HDD solutions. Does that work better than Fusion's 30x? And does it cost more?
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