At VMware’s VMworld conference last week, the buzz of the storage world was all about flash solutions (see all of theCUBE VMworld Flash videos here). While this wave of flash solutions started a few years ago, the discussion over the last year has switched from the “why” of flash to a broad spectrum of real products from both start-ups and big players.
Many of these solutions have real deployments and are proving out the economics in customer environments. The “flash market” is not a single solution; rather there are a number of architectural approaches that fit many different use cases (see Wikibon’s Flash Infographic). The flash market has both server-led solutions (led by Fusion-io and other cards and drives in servers), storage-led appliances or arrays, and solutions that are starting to blur the line between these worlds (such as Fusion-io’s ION and EMC’s VFCache 1.5). The real differentiation in this marketplace is all related to software. Today, QLogic is sharing its vision (code-named Mt. Rainier Project, see QLogic's PR) of a networking-led solution that can enhance flash storage offerings.
It’s useful to note QLogic’s place in the ecosystem; QLogic is the leader in Fibre Channel (FC) Host Bus Adapters (HBAs), a top provider of Ethernet adapters and an OEM supplier of switches, adapters, and chips to just about every server and storage vendor. QLogic is an interconnect company, and this new initiative looks to enhance, not compete with, offerings from the current storage/flash suppliers.
Adapter vendors, like QLogic, have a very important place in both the hardware and software stack. On the software side, QLogic’s drivers are already installed and tested with the full application stacks of millions of servers. On the hardware side, adapters take up a physical slot and are the broker of IO to the SAN.
QLogic’s Mt. Rainier Project has a simple, yet powerful proposition: transforming server-based SSDs, which today are captive to a single server, into a shared cache SAN across servers. The new solution allows flash to be accessed through QLogic’s driver rather than a separate driver for the SSD or flash card. Operationally, the operating system and application will treat flash the same way that they treat storage in traditional FC SANs, along with some additional standards-based hints for caching.
The Mt. Rainier-enabled HBA can connect to standard SAS SSDs or PCIe installed flash cards. The “magic” of this solution is that since QLogic has both initiator and target mode drivers, a shared cache can be created across multiple servers (see Figure 1 below). This technology will increase the utility and applicability for server-based flash by combining the best aspects of DAS (local performance and low latency) and SAN (better utilization and better management). This solution will be especially applicable for applications that utilize clustering such as databases, Microsoft Exchange, and VMware environments.
Since QLogic sells most of its products through OEMs, future announcements with those partners that will integrate and sell the offerings will be important to allow this vision to become reality. While flash uses a fraction of the energy spinning disk, when HBAs and flash boards can be consolidated onto a single adapter, enterprises that are potentially deploying thousands of servers will realize significant power savings. While the initial solution is only using FC, it is worth noting that QLogic’s 16Gb FC HBAs can also change personalities to be 10Gb Ethernet adapters, so the future may hold an option to support iSCSI and NFS. Finally, while VMware is making progress on supporting flash in virtual environments (see Ray Lucchesi’s write-up), QLogic’s solution will work across various OSes and hypervisors.
Action Item: As CIOs embrace the new generation of flash-based storage solutions, they should pay close attention to the value and simplicity that the software brings to the environment. As the market matures, point technology solutions should develop into more robust and integrated offerings. QLogic’s solution holds the promise of a simple networking-led approach that can allow server-based flash to become a standard for enterprise configurations across a broader range of applications.
Footnotes: Also see A_CIO_primer_on_solid_state_storage_and_the_solid_state_market