• 05/02/2014
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    Jim O'Reilly
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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.




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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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!

Re: Flash Array is the Trend

That makes sense. It'll be interesting to see how the pricing shapes up once competitors introduce products.


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.



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?

Re: Benchmarks.
@joreilly925, The reason I brought up Fusion IO is that this another form of Windows deep integration with flash. Here are the details of the comparison.  They do the same thing Violin Memory does - using a vague "Enterprise Class Array" - it would be great to know specifically what array they used. I do like the Fusion IO whitepaper because it does provide a level of detail to the comparison.   I also like that they are working at API layers that other array companies seem to be side-stepping and while Violin Memory has been showcasing running arrays at a 1 million IOPS, Fusion IO has demonstrated logging applications running at 9 million IOPS from a single flash pcie card. See:

As for "deep integration" as being the main feature - I would suggest that other flash vendors as they arrive on the Windows scene will make this differentiator less unique.  SMB 3 that you mention is already supported by other vendors, such as NetApp and Tegile have already announced support.  That's why I think pricing is pretty important. Violin Memory seems to indicate it thinks so also because they are trying a pay-as-you-grow sales model. But IBM and Pure Storage have come in #1 and #2 in this year's Gartners Flash array Survey. Last year it was Violin Memory at #1. It is isn't that they have just been pushed down to #3 - both NetApp and EMC are very, very close behind.  I think pricing is one of the key factors in this movement. Pure Storage has been growing at an amazing rate and as of March had already sold over 1000 arrays.  ( )  A fair amount of that growth has been into Windows environments.

Depending on the market - Violin Memory has an opportunity to do well in medium to large business IT settings with WFA. However, if you are building enterprise clouds or public clouds, it is hard to beat SolidFire (which is not based on Windows Storage Server Platform).  SolidFire scales-out to 100 nodes  vs Violin Memory's Windows Flash Array 12RU and 280 TB flash which only scale to 4 nodes or Violin's Concerto 7000 to 4 nodes in 18RU at 280 TB of flash. For comparison, SolidFire can do 277 TB in 8RU (8 nodes) or 623 TB in 18 nodes. And Violin Memory's power requirements are pretty significant.  Companies that need scale-out, like eBay/PayPal are moving to SolidFire. eBay/PayPal have 110 SolidFire nodes. See -

The flash marketplace is very competitive, Violin Memory has an opportunity to move a fair amount of flash into Windows environments - but they will have really, really tough competition. The "deep integration" into windows provides a strong feature.