Price Still Outweighs Performance in SSD Equation

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Most IT managers would be downright ornery over CPU and memory constraints clogging up their server farm. For Josh Lukes, it’s a problem he is happy to deal with since those bottlenecks are driving a significant Flash storage-enabled performance increase.

Lukes oversees 320TB of storage capacity in a Raleigh, NC, data center as part of an engineering business unit of Itron, Inc., a Spokane, Wash.-based maker of electric, gas, and water meters and related metering software. The data center features a combination of 306 HP (NYSE: HPQ) and IBM (NYSE: IBM) servers, including 14 VMware virtual servers running 600 instances.

Lukes is responsible for running massive software simulations to support performance of the meter database and collection testing for up to 5 million Itron meters. Earlier this year, Lukes decided to invest in enterprise Flash storage – the first in his company to consider such a move – to accelerate the performance of a collection engine database and dramatically increase the value of testing and generating data.

“As always, your database is storage constrained. We threw Flash at it to see if we could get past that point,” remarked Lukes. “We knew that we needed to have that improvement in [storage] performance to have any chance of it being useful.”

The move worked to perfection. By adding five 72GB Flash drives cut into their own set of LUNs and running Oracle RAC to his overall 650 spinning disk drive storage architecture, performance simulations have gained the elusive extra storage space required to maximize test results.

“It’s been very, very efficient. Naturally it was incredibly much faster, to the point we’re looking at upgrading the servers to get past the CPU and memory constraints, which is a great problem to have,” he noted.

Lukes said his group has accumulated its current 320TB capacity in the last 24 months. Primarily an EMC (NYSE: EMC) shop running mostly Fibre Channel (FC) storage, the architecture includes a CLARiiON CX4-960 hooked up to about 70 disk drives. The environment also features 146GB 15K RPM drives and 400GB 10K RPM drives.

Although he expects his group to purchase more Flash drives next year, Lukes said that costs for the technology – despite its obvious performance benefits over spinning disks – may still be too prohibitive for many storage customers to swallow. He paid approximately $70,000 for the five Flash drives he purchased six months ago.

Another factor keeping solid state drive (SSD) technology firmly in the early adopter phase among enterprise storage buyers, is caution around the reliability of Flash against mission critical applications, said analyst Brian Garrett of the Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group.

“The perception is everyone’s concerned that enterprise Flash still isn’t reliable,” said Garrett. “Especially in storage, everyone is cautious for very good reason – they’re betting their company data on this. I think we’ve crossed over from a reality standpoint, but perception [of Flash drives] is going to take a couple of years.”

In addition to the reliability of Flash being proven with technologies like RAID, Garrett expects demand for Flash storage to “take a turn up” in the next year or two because SSD operational difficulties and management obstacles are actively being addressed by storage vendors, which, in turn, is helping to drive down the cost equation.

“For every dollar you spend you’re getting more benefit. In a way it’s leveling the pricing playing field and getting better utilization which makes the price difference [versus spinning disks] not quite as scary,” said Garrett.

As evidence of this trend, Garrett pointed to EMC’s FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) Cache technology, which uses built-in compression with automated tiering and policy-based controls to intelligently send data between SSDs and high capacity SATA drives based on activity and changes over time. Last month, EMC announced that FAST Cache had finally begun shipping to customers.

By making a storage system “as smart or smarter” than a storage administrator through automation, SSDs become a far less risky proposition, said Scott Delandy, senior product manager at EMC.

“People recognize there are economic advantages or service-level benefits of SSD technology, but they don’t have the skills and knowledge to take advantage of that in their organization,” said Delandy. “By building that into their machine, that’s one less thing they have to worry about.”

Additionally, he said that future advancements in FAST Cache could include data deduplication and thin provisioning.

Lukes has been able to witness the SSD benefits of FAST Cache firsthand, as his group is currently testing a loaner FAST Cache unit from EMC equipped with 10 400GB Flash drives. For the past three months he has used the device to speed a portion of an Oracle database running on systems used for daily software simulations of a day in the life of a utility company.

He called the results “an order of magnitude” better as storage performance was catapulted from 500 I/Os per second (IOPS) on some LUNs to more than 5000 IOPS when the Flash drive was placed in between. However, he admitted the exorbitant price of FAST Cache remains too prohibitive for him to consider purchasing anytime soon.

Brian Fonseca is a seasoned communications expert with over 10 years of experience as a technology journalist for major IT trade publications including Computerworld, EWeek and Infoworld. His primary areas of news coverage and industry focus have involved storage, security and IT services. Before entering the world of IT, Brian worked as a beat reporter for The Herald News in Fall River, Mass., and as a TV sports and news producer for Channel 12-WPRI/FOX-64 WNAC in Providence, RI. Brian holds a B.A. in Communications from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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