Piecing Together the SAN-Less Enterprise

Flash storage remains one of the hottest growth areas in enterprise circles as vendors look to boost throughput and storage performance to levels more suitable to modern server environments.

But is this the only way for Flash to make its mark? Could it be that the enterprise is on the cusp of a radically re-imagined storage architecture that could kick both virtualization and the cloud into even higher gear?

Let’s take a look at some of the recent evidence. IBM recently announced that it is buying Texas Memory Systems for an undisclosed sum. TMS is known mostly for its RamSan solid state arrays and its lines of PCIe networking systems. The ostensible goal is to provide IBM servers with a high-speed cache designed to ramp up application performance in mission-critical settings. But is that all there is to it? More than a few experts expect the Flash/PCIe combination to form the basis of new SAN-less infrastructure, where server, storage and networking is provisioned in modular form as a low-cost, high-performance and easily scalable solution for cloud providers and enterprise start-ups. If IBM had any desire to move in that direction, TMS would form a solid foundation.

Still, such a configuration would require quite a bit of capacity if it were to replace existing SANs. Solid state is known for speed and low power consumption, but most solutions do not favor high-capacity configurations. Enter Exhibit 2: Virident Systems’ new FlashMAX II drive. The device ranges from 550 GB to 2.2 TB, which should be more than adequate for the vast majority of enterprise applications out there. The drive is PCIe-compatible and provides built-in support for ESXi server and desktop virtualization. It also features Flash-aware RAID management that places all capacity on a single card under one volume.

The question of management has always been a tough one for proponents of Flash-based PCIe infrastructure to address. Volume management is certainly a major step forward, but what about all the other goodies that SAN users have grown accustomed to? Enter Fusion-io’s Ion Data Accelerator, a new software stack promising to create in all-solid-state SAN. In a nutshell, this will allow enterprises to deploy server-side PCIe as an integrated network where data can be shared across both physical and virtual servers. The package includes advanced data replication and availability tools, as well as over-provisioning and wear-leveling tools to manage capacity. Best of all, it can be implemented on off-the-shelf platforms from HP, Dell, IBM and Cisco.

Already, firms like NetApp are looking to Fusion-io to form the basis for new virtual storage platforms. The NetApp Virtual Storage Tier unites the ioMemory storage system with the Data Ontap operating system into a modular component that will likely see its first action in the Cisco FlexPod system. With the Flash layer forming the top end of an automated tier infrastructure, NetApp seems to have the best of both worlds as it looks to incorporate the best aspects of advanced PCIe infrastructure and traditional network-attached storage. Time will tell, however, if the NAS portion of the configuration can maintain its value as Flash gains capacity and management features going forward.

It would seem, then, that all the pieces are in place for a highly modular, PCIe-based storage networking environment that employs high-speed Flash drives and eschews all of those clunky switches, routers and other devices that have characterized, some would say hampered, storage networking architecture for so long.

Established enterprises with millions invested in their SAN/NAS architectures will probably want to leverage that investment for a while longer. But for start-up organizations, cloud providers in particular, looking to build high-performance, scalable infrastructure at low cost and with none of the complexity of traditional storage environments, the Flash/PCIe combination certainly merits consideration.

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