IBM FlashSystem’s Big Step Forward with Flash Storage for the Hybrid Cloud

Eddie Cantor once said, “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.” That is certainly the case with flash storage which has been around for many years, but high cost limited its acceptability to a limited number of high-performance/high-value-added applications. Declining prices have led to broader acceptance of flash storage for a broader base of high performance (tier 0) applications.

Then came a seemingly overnight (although it was actually a couple of years) transition where flash storage was seen as capable of replacing traditional primary disk storage (tier 1). That made the economics of flash quite justifiable to data center owners and the adoption of flash storage as primary storage is proceeding rapidly.

Related to this, much of the exponential growth of storage comes from new and emerging trends that are related to the Internet of Things (IoT), social media and Web services. Big data and the emerging trend of cognitive analytics thrive on not only the humongous quantity of data that these trends produce, but also the need to process much of the data very rapidly in order to derive the benefits (such as actionable, near-real-time insights) that enterprises seek in trying to gain a competitive advantage.

The “cloud” in some form is likely to be the recipient of that data as traditional IT infrastructures are neither cost effective or performant enough. With the introduction of IBM FlashSystem® A9000 and IBM FlashSystem A9000R, IBM delivers the necessary purpose-built flash storage infrastructure to meet the demands of the cloud both from a scale and performance basis. So IBM is taking the next step for flash storage beyond primary storage for traditional applications to meet the new and emerging needs of the cloud.

But before we get to the new products, let’s examine IBM FlashCore™, the foundational IBM technology for all of its FlashSystem solutions and briefly review FlashSystem 900 for tier 0 application acceleration and FlashSystem V9000 as an all-flash array for tier 1 primary storage.

FlashCore technology: the cornerstone for all FlashSystem products

FlashCore technology starts with dual controllers that manage the flash storage contained in connected IBM MicroLatency™ modules. The fundamental driving principle is to replace software with hardware in the movement and management of data so as to add as little latency as possible. The bottom line then is that FlashCore is a hardware accelerator of data.

FlashCore technology substitutes IBM’s field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for the software functions that many vendors place in the data path. Now, an FPGA is really “frozen software” as it contains logic blocks that perform the same tasks that the software would have done. However, as hardware, an FPGA performs far more swiftly than software.

FlashCore uses FPGAs in many roles. One acts as a gateway that talks “up” to the dual controllers and “down” to the flash chips themselves. A second manages the RAID controllers for data protection in the data path in the dual controllers (IBM believes that its hardware implementation of RAID is unique). The third FPGA manages the HBAs that interact with the world outside of FlashCore.  FPGAs also serve as the Flash controllers for each MicroLatency module in the system.

IBM MicroLatency modules are the building blocks for a FlashSystem and up to 12 can be contained in one enclosure. Each IBM FlashSystem product can scale to different numbers of enclosures.

The bottom line, though, is that according to IBM, all FlashSystem products (with the exception of the FlashSystem 900, which is even better) deliver average latency of 250 microseconds. Without starting a debate, suffice it to say that this is very good. The key issue IBM emphasizes is that the average response time remains relatively constant, even though hundreds of thousands of requests are in queue because hardware is talking to hardware instead of software.

The important ramification of this is that the base IBM FlashCore technology can scale up from tier 0 FlashSystem 900 to tier 1 FlashSystem 9000 and finally to the hyperscale (a.k.a. grid scale) world of the cloud where the FlashSystem A9000 and the FlashSystem A9000R play.

Now, let’s consider some practical applications for IBM’s FlashCore.

IBM FlashSystem 900 for Tier 0 storage performance acceleration

Do you have an online transaction processing (OLTP) system where the database performance is unacceptably sluggish to the point where revenues are being negatively impacted? This is a job for IBM FlashSystem 900 which is designed to dramatically accelerate I/O performance. IBM states that the system can do up to 1.1 million 100% random read IOPS and 600,000 100% random write IOPS. Suffice it to say that this is blazingly fast and that the IBM FlashSystem 900 fulfills its Tier 0 role of turbocharging the performance of targeted applications.

IBM FlashSystem V9000 for Tier 1 primary storage

Though its foundation is still the FlashCore technology, IBM’s FlashSystem V9000 is more than just a supersized IBM FlashSystem 900. Tier 1 primary storage demands much more in the capabilities that it needs to provide. FlashSystem 900 solutions provide the necessary software-defined storage functions for the world of flash rather than the world of hard disks. That includes such services as storage virtualization, thin provisioning, snapshots, cloning, replication, data copy services and high-availability configurations for disaster recovery, such as using IBM HyperSwap for access to data from data centers as far as 300 km apart. In other words, for a flash storage system to be a Tier 1 storage system, it has to provide the same basic services as a hard disk Tier 1 system, but at the same time deliver the performance benefits that flash has over hard disks. And this is what the IBM FlashSystem V9000 is designed to deliver.

And now to main tent — The IBM FlashSystem A9000 and IBM FlashSystem A9000R

Yes, it has taken a long time to get here, but both of the new IBM FlashSystem products are not de novo beginnings. Rather, they build on what has gone before and thus need to be put into context. The foundation is FlashCore technology as represented in the Tier 0 IBM FlashSystem 900. Added to that are data services, such as remote replication, that Tier 1 systems, such as the IBM FlashSystem V9000 provides.

But the cloud has demands and requirements for capabilities and functionality that go beyond just the demands for Tier 0 and Tier 1 storage:

  • Multi-tenancy with granular quality of service to eliminate noisy neighbors – One of those capabilities is multi-tenancy. Numerous cloud users and applications obviously need to share the same flash storage system and have to be isolated from one another for privacy and security reasons. But just supporting multi-tenancy features is not enough. One or more users or applications may want their unfair share of resources, and thus significantly degrade the legitimate requirements of other users and applications. This is called the “noisy neighbor” problem which is typically resolved with quality of service (QoS) functionality. The two new FlashSystem solutions have the flexibility of delivering QoS by pool, volume or host, and by being able to cap either bandwidth or IOPS for specific users or applications. The latest QoS is much more granular than the old version, which was applied only to specific performance groups.
  • Better economics through data reduction – Now, flash storage is still not inexpensive, so being able to use data reduction techniques to increase the usable capacity of flash storage is critical. For example, the V9000 and the two new cloud-oriented products offer real-time compression that IBM claims can (depending upon data type of course) increase usable capacity up to five times over the stated physical capacity. But the two new systems also offer enhanced data reduction techniques. In front of compression, IBM now offers inline deduplication and in front of deduplication, IBM has introduced a pattern removal functionality, a filter to easily remove data before it even gets to the deduplication and compression stages.
  • A new user interface for simplifying flash storage management – The large scale of cloud flash storage system environments could be a real challenge to administrators. In order to simplify their management, IBM has introduced a new user interface (UI) for its two new systems. The company feels that this UI is the next evolution beyond the XIV UI, which in itself has been well-accepted and popular. But things don’t stand still and the FlashSystem group was able to draw upon IBM Design within IBM Research to develop the new UI. The new look and feel incorporates such things as smart filtering to find information faster, guided assistance, and the straightforward ability to do multi-tasking.
  • IBM FlashSystem A9000 — Simple feeds and speeds – The IBM FlashSystem A9000 is the smaller of the two new solutions. IBM’s target markets are cloud service providers and enterprises with data-intensive requirements. The A9000 runs on a “pod” which is 8U high with 3 grid controllers and a flash enclosure. It can scale up to 300 TB effective capacity given that a very good data reduction ratio applies. The system can perform up to 500,000 IOPS given a 70/30 read/write ratio.
  • IBM FlashSystem A9000R — Simple feeds and speeds – The IBM FlashSystem A9000R is the bigger solution and targets large scale deployments in the very largest enterprises and hybrid cloud environments. The A9000R runs in a standard rack configuration and can scale to 1.8 PB of effective capacity, with the caveat that a very good data reduction ratio must be applied. The system can deliver up to 2 MM IOPS given a 70/30 read/write ratio.

Mesabi musings

IBM has introduced a number of new capabilities with these two flash systems, including a new user interface and a solid chain of data reduction techniques starting at the front with pattern removal. Still other all-flash vendors have had deduplication for some time, and SolidFire (now part of NetApp) addressed the issue of QoS to solve the noisy neighbor problem a few years ago. However, that does not matter. What matters is what is available now, and IBM has delivered those key capabilities.

The cloud is one of the new frontiers in information technology and one of its key roles is to be able to suck up humongous quantities of storage. But storing data alone is not enough; that data has to be put to productive use and that requires the necessary performance that flash storage systems can bring to the table.

IBM’s FlashCore technology provides the necessary performance characteristics, but that alone is not a sufficient condition for succeeding in the cloud world. Instead, success requires supporting capabilities such as multi-tenancy, data reduction and straightforward management tools through an easy to manage UI. The IBM FlashSystem A9000 and the IBM FlashSystem A9000R deliver those and other capabilities and functions that the cloud world demands.

Just as flash continues to evolve beyond just performance acceleration and primary storage replacement to the large-scale world of the cloud, IBM’s new FlashSystem solutions demonstrate that the company will play a major role in that continuing evolution.