IBM Continues to Drive Forward with FlashSystem All-Flash Storage

IBM’s new storage-related announcements focus heavily on the FlashSystem portion of its all-flash storage portfolio which has as its foundation the FlashSystem 900. That includes the FlashSystem 900 itself, a standalone 2U rack solution for tier 0 application acceleration, the FlashSystem V9000 for traditional tier 1 enterprise-class applications, and the FlashSystem A9000/FlashSystem A9000R for cloud-based, enterprise-class applications.

The “R” stands for Rack and the A9000R is the biggest brother in the A9000 family, offering greater maximum capacity compared to its smaller sibling. Both can be incorporated as part of a VersaStack solution, which you will recall is Cisco and IBM’s name for its converged infrastructure (CI) solution that combines servers, storage and networking into a pre-configured bundle.

This announcement also continues IBM’s trend to emphasize its all-flash storage systems. If you would like additional background on IBM’s all-flash portfolio and strategy, see .

IBM’s announcement highlights major enhancements to the FlashSystem 900 which all members of the FlashSystem family inherit. Those other family members also have their own new functions, features and upgrade capabilities. Let’s take a closer look at them all.

IBM FlashSystem 900

  • Move From 2D to 3D Flash Technology. The most dramatic change is in the flash media itself, shifting from the use of 2D planar NAND MLC (multi-level cell) flash to 3D NAND TLC (triple-level cell) flash. This move takes advantage of die stacking to increase storage density, which is how the maximum usable capacity of the systems has tripled from 57 TB to 180 TB in the same 2U rack. TLC flash actually has a higher endurance than planar MLC, which is why IBM has no trouble offering a 7-year flash wear guarantee for its new solutions. The low latency, high IOPS, and strong bandwidth are the same as before with the data reduction feature’s inline hardware compression turned on.
  • Inline Hardware Compression. Sticking with that subject, inline hardware compression is now being offered for the first time on the FlashSystem 900. The maximum effective capacity is now 220 TB, which is a 4X (instead of the 3X improvement without it) over the 2D version’s maximum usable capacity. Plus, the compression/decompression algorithm is completely implemented in hardware. Since no processor intervention is required, there is no performance impact on server functions. Compression and decompression are performed in real-time with minimal added latency to inbound and outbound data flows. Overall performance continues (as it does without compression) to scale linearly.
  • New User Interface to Manage System. The FlashSystem 900 now uses a graphical-user interface (GUI) instead of a command-line interface (CLI). The GUI’s consolidated dashboard shows a system’s performance, current activity and active events on a single screen. The interface also enables the setting of custom notifications, such as when a system’s effective capacity reaches a pre-specified level. Quite frankly, a GUI that clearly shows a consolidated view of the three critical storage metrics of performance, capacity, and health enables storage administrators with less training to manage more storage with better results. In turn, that can also lead to fewer storage administrators being required for a given amount of managed storage. This results in an OPEX decrease with improvements in operational efficiency that go hand in glove with the CAPEX improvements that the move to 3D flash and compression enable.

IBM FlashSystem A9000/FlashSystem A9000R

IBM’s FlashSystem A9000/FlashSystem A9000R use the company’s new 3D TLC NAND MicroLatency modules, (see for more details). The company states that the modules offers up to a 200% capacity increase and also claims a 66% reduction in space, cooling and management cost per TB in the A9000/FlashSystem A9000R. The new solutions can also asynchronously mirror to a disaster recovery site that uses IBM XIV Gen 3 systems with hard disk drives. This is important since utilizing HDDs significantly reduces disaster recovery (DR) costs.

IBM FlashSystem V9000

The IBM FlashSystem V9000 introduces a new AE3 flash enclosure that using the 3D TLC technology. A customer’s IT managers can choose between what IBM calls “ultra-performance” for meeting software service-level agreement (SLA) latency, IOPS and bandwidth requirements or capacity-optimized functionality for dealing with increasing data volumes and overall storage capacity.

On the ultra-performance side, either 3.6 TB or 8.5TB MicroLatency modules can use the 2:1 no-performance-impact inline hardware compression discussed in the section on the FlashSystem 900. IBM states that this can result in a 50% overall performance improvement of up to 5.2M IOPS per system.

On the capacity-optimized side, the system uses 18 TB modules using a different compression technology called Data Reduction Pools (DRP). DRP is a combination of hardware-assisted block level and the SCSI UNMAP advisory command that is used to reclaim blocks of data that have been logically deleted, but not physically deleted. IBM stated that DRP can lead to up to a 5:1 level of data reduction. The usual caveat of “your mileage may vary” applies, but IBM also offers a Comprestimator software tool for estimating block compression rates so customers can better understand the potential benefits.  The company also believes that up to 80% of all workloads can be compressed to some extent.

Combining the 3X capacity improvement due to using 3D flash and the DRP algorithm means that a single enclosure can have up to 900 TB effective capacity and that a single system with multiple enclosures can scale up to an effective capacity of 7.2 PB.

IBM Block Storage Container Support

Docker container environments are becoming increasingly popular, but they often need persistent storage that remains intact unless administrators choose to change or delete it. IBM now offers persistent storage for Docker container environments using orchestration with IBM Cloud Private and Kubernetes. IBM supports these solutions in all storage offerings built on IBM Spectrum Virtualize and IBM Spectrum Accelerate, as well as VersaStack. That includes the FlashSystem A9000/A9000R and the FlashSystem V9000. Spectrum Virtualize also supports many other IBM and non-IBM storage systems (over 400 in all).

A key benefit of this approach is to manage cloud-native operations using stateful containers based on IBM storage. For example, the cloud-optimized IBM FlashSystem A9000/A9000R can apply end-to-end cloud economics that reduce costs for Docker container environments by simplifying complexity, ensuring necessary high-performance consistency, and taking advantage of grid scalability.

Mesabi musings

All-flash storage systems continue to attract more and more attention as they become the primary storage vehicle of choice for tier 1 production storage, replacing traditional HDD-based systems. And IBM continues to be a mover and shaker in driving that trend as revealed in its latest all-flash storage announcement.

The first major enhancement in these new solutions is the introduction of 3D NAND TLC technology to supplant the established 2D planar NAND MLC technology, resulting in a 3X increase in maximum native usable capacity. The second is the introduction of compression technology that increases the maximum effective capacity to a higher level than the maximum native usable capacity.

Along with other enhancements, such as the new user-friendly GUI, the net result is that IBM is offering significantly improved performance as well as better CAPEX and OPEX results. That should result in FlashSystem solutions becoming even more attractive choices for IBM customers.