SSD Strategies Target Enterprise Servers

Vendors are starting to place solid-state storage inside of servers as an alternative to putting it in external storage arrays

March 13, 2009

6 Min Read
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When Hewlett Packard and Fusion-io announced an agreement earlier this month for an HP StorageWorks Accelerator that was capable of boosting enterprise server performance for HP blade server customers, it was a signal that enterprises could see more solid-state technology applied within servers, rather than outside of them.

"When you look at what we're trying to achieve, we want an infrastructure that can be used by applications," says Lee Johns, HP's director of marketing. "Many sites are doing large-scale media rendering on the high end or they are profiling seismic information or performing financial transactions and modeling. There is a need for extremely high IOPS [input/output operations per second] in this environment from the storage side."

The conventional method for achieving high IOPS with hard drives is to use a large number of spindles. "We felt there was a better way to achieve it. That's why we collaborated with Fusion-io to provide a solution within the server itself," Johns says. "The result is low power consumption, high IOPS performance, and a dramatic improvement in infrastructure."

The move isnt likely to trigger an enterprise stampede into solid-state drive (SSD) adoption, but it does provide product options for high-performance computing organizations like financial companies with high volumes of transactions and financial modeling, media companies charged with rendering as many movies as soon as they can, and scientific organizations doing seismic and other types of modeling.

"Enterprises interested in the StorageWorks accelerator are looking for the most IOPS they can get," Johns says. "The only alternative they have right now without an accelerator solution is to add greater numbers of spindles. The fact that we've taken the technology and applied it within the blade enclosure without taking up space is significant to them."Equally significant for the overall enterprise market is HP's decision to adopt in-server SSDs. IDC reported that HP was the world's No. 1 vendor in server shipments at the end of 2008, and that HP held 54.8 percent of world revenue share for blade servers. A move to in-server SSDs by a major server provider can serve as a bellwether of enterprise adoption. Other server vendors are following suit. Sun Microsystems recently said it will make available SSD flash technology from Intel in its x64 rack and blade servers.

Still, HP makes it clear that its StorageWorks products will be available in multiple configurations for enterprises -- both with and without in-server SSD. "The StorageWorks accelerator is not the only option that we configure for our customers," says Johns, "In fact, if you're just looking for capacity, you might opt for traditional SATA drives. But if you want the performance, the accelerator would be the option to consider."

The move by HP is significant for IT mangers for several reasons. First, the idea of a company with the enterprise reputation of HP adding NAND flash accelerator technology in its servers does a lot to improve enterprise confidence and willingness to consider the technology. "Up until now, this kind of NAND technology hasn't really been available," Johns says. "It's something we felt we could deliver at the quality level that enterprises expect. When we looked at our blade server infrastructure and the market, we found that there were many more high-performance computing niches where customers were using our blades. We're really focused on making sure that we deliver a product to them that has all of the memory they need within the server itself."

Second, while Fusion-io has customized an accelerator for HP's blade servers, the customization of a NAND flash-based storage adaptor based on Fusion-io's ioMemory technology does not mean that similar technology can't be implemented on other platforms. "The product is malleable in that you can do the board layout in many different ways, depending on where you need to implement it," says Fusion-io chief technology officer David Flynn. "This means that it is very easy to deliver different form factors of the product."

Putting solid-state technology inside servers doesn't reduce the high price of SSDs or change the total cost of ownership equation, which is the biggest roadblock to enterprise adoption of the technology. Some companies will be able to justify the additional expense, but most probably can't."If you are in the movie rendering business, you want to get as many movies rendered as quickly as you can, and you want the performance that a NAND memory alternative can offer," says Johns. "That benefit translates directly to the bottom line. You have the server processor that is performing, and it is waiting for the disk. In environments like this, it is not hard to run the calculations and to see that from the performance standpoint that SSD makes sense.”

That is the cost-per-IOPS argument that SSD and storage systems vendors make. They also argue that customers can save money by using solid-state technology because a lot of hard-drive capacity goes unused. By replacing hard drives with SSD flash, IT department could lower costs on a "cost per effective gigabyte" standard that looks at the percent of storage that applications really use, assuming that companies set up their TCO calculations this way. Whether that argument holds water, it will be hard during their period of tight IT budgets to get storage administrators and IT managers to pay extra bucks for SSDs unless they can justify the expenditure on a performance and revenue basis. That is especially true for CIOs if they have to go through the budget department for permission, and at least 24 percent of CIOs still report to CFOs, who are focused on today’s returns on IT investments.

"If you’re purely concerned about storage capacity, then NAND is not going to pencil out for you as an IT storage option," Johns admits. "But if your goals are throughput and dollars per IOPS, NAND will be your choice. We are talking about 12 times the number of random IOPS per dollar on NAND versus traditional hard drives, plus you use less power."

Like Johns, Fusion-io's Flynn says initial enterprise adopters will likely be those who can easily translate an SSD investment into direct profits and cost benefits for the company -- without fancy reworks of TCO statements. Adoption takes time, but when you have a company like HP put its label on a NAND product, it builds the value of the product in the eyes of enterprises because they see that the product is going to be supported," he says. "This builds the perception that the product is supportable, and removes a significant barrier. It is going to speed the enterprise adoption rate of NAND."

Find out more about innovative storage. InformationWeek and Byte and Switch are hosting a virtual event on this topic on March 25. Sign up now (registration required).0

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