The locus of controlling infrastructure changes as technology advances. In the 1990’s, EMC led the charge to move intelligence and value out of the server, into centralized storage arrays. In the last decade, virtualization (led by VMware) again shifted industry power structures by abstracting physical infrastructure; rippling across servers, networks, storage, and beyond. Beyond virtualization, the explosive growth of data and new inflection points of technology have led to a what Wikibon calls an IO-centric model of future computing.
As shown in Figure 1, flash storage is not a single technology and fits for many use cases. PCIe flash delivers a different performance profile than SSD in the storage array. While Fusion-io and EMC’s VFCache partly overlap, today the use cases and deployment models are different. The companies are on a collision course for the next year as Fusion-io expands its offering based on the acquisition of IO Turbine and EMC looks to expand its flash portfolio. A large battlefield will be the PCIe Flash Integration Layer. PCIe appliances are the only way to deliver the horsepower for clustered servers. The real issue is who will control the active data management within EMC’s Project Thunder solution that will be in competition with a growing number of flash startups.
EMC’s VFCache is a 1.0 product release and has noticeable gaps in the product offering that will be filled in the near future. First, it lacks solutions for blade servers. EMC stated that these would be coming soon. While Micron is EMC’s primary source for VFCache flash, LSI announced that it is a supplier to EMC and separately that it is building a solution for Cisco’s UCS (B-Series) blades. While HP is a competitor to EMC on the storage side, HP’s server group has a history of broad industry support (like the recent Cisco FEX module), so adding a VFCache module in the future (HP already has a Fusion-io solution) is not out of the question. Alternatively, EMC’s future “Project Thunder” solution is an external appliance that allows multiple VFCache cards placed in an appliance to be shared amongst multiple servers that are connected via a high speed connection (either InfiniBand or Ethernet).
Another noticeable gap for VFCache is that VMware support is currently through a driver in the Guest OS rather than the hypervisor. As noted by EMC’s Chad Sakac, this means that vMotion cannot be used while the cache is active and the applicability for the solution for virtualization environments is limited. Once VMware integration and VFCache modules for Cisco blade servers are available, the solution is expected to move into VCE’s Vblock environments. A new startup, Nutanix, is already shipping a converged compute and storage solution that leverages integrated flash (both Fusion-io PCIe and SSD).
Action Item: CIOs looking to transform the business should keep a close eye on flash storage. Deployed properly, flash technologies can allow businesses to create new applications and look for new ways to derive greater value from information. That being said, the ecosystem for flash technologies is evolving rapidly, so should be used tactically where there is a clear benefit for specific applications.