Flash Storage Systems Get Smart
By Jeff Ferry
Albert Fuller manages IT infrastructure for the California Public Utilities Commission, a state regulatory agency. He supports 1500 employees in four locations, two in state capital Sacramento and two in San Francisco. His team decided to implement virtual desktops (VDI) for the staff, for better cost-efficiency and security. But VDI technology is extremely storage-intensive, especially in the morning when employees all switch on their clients at the same time. His legacy storage equipment just couldn’t keep up with demand during the so-called morning “bootstorms.” He looked into a number of new storage products, including disk-based arrays, the newer flash-based arrays, and products that combine the two technologies. In the end he went with an all-flash array from SolidFire. Flash memory is faster than disk memory and could handle the demands of the VDI desktops easily. But it wasn’t just the speed. With its software intelligence, the SolidFire system also lets him dedicate storage resources to specific applications, allocating greater capacity to VDI than to other applications using the storage. SolidFire calls that ability to dedicate resources quality of services, QoS.
“It’s one of the very best features,” Fuller told the Daily Cloud. “I can manually set the IOPS [input/output operations per second]. I haven’t seen this in other vendors’ products.” He says the system now handles the growing number of VDI desktops with ease, and with capacity to spare. “We get no latency and no complaints in the morning.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that flash memory is no longer enough on its own to deliver a winning next-generation storage solution. SolidFire is one of a newer breed of storage companies using software intelligence, as well as hardware, to deliver performance that can keep up with the demands of storage-intensive applications, and the demands of cloud providers, who need to serve multiple clients on a single infrastructure.
“What separates us is that we came out of the world of the cloud,” says SolidFire VP of Marketing Jay Prassl. “Our founder was at Rackspace, where the challenge was how to run a huge number of high-performing applications and make money.” In addition to his Rackspace experience, SolidFire founder and CEO Dave Wright had experience building systems for online gaming, which involves delivering high-speed, low-latency service to thousands or millions of gamers. In 2010, Wright founded SolidFire.
SolidFire has done well with cloud providers, who handle a broad range of applications for many customers. Prassl lists Japan’s NTT (NYSE:NTT), European network operator Colt (COLT.L), and CenturyLink (CTL) as SolidFire customers. RFA is a cloud provider based in New York City and focused on the financial industry. Its revenue is more than $30 million a year. RFA Chief Technology Officer Grigoriy Milis told us how he came to choose SolidFire: “When we first architected our cloud platform, we went with more established storage vendors, but we quickly realized that would not work well, for scalability and especially because of the `noisy neighbor’ problem.” Many RFA customers ran demanding applications at the end of the trading day, leading to a deterioration in performance as they all tried to access the same servers and storage resources at the same time—the classic “noisy neighbor” problem.
Milis went through an evaluation process to choose a new storage system, looking at both established and emerging vendors. He liked the reliability of SolidFire’s five-node architecture—“you can lose two nodes without affecting the data availability.” But he was particularly keen on the quality of service capability. “It’s very important for us to control the IO. QoS is a unique functionality and it was a deciding factor for us.” He says it was a risk going with a young vendor, but so far he’s very pleased with the results. He’s pleased they continue to add functionality, such as the capability to handle Fibre Channel protocol.
Hardware vs. Software
Both RFA and CPUC also looked at Pure Storage (PSTG), another all-flash array vendor, before choosing SolidFire. Milis, the CTO at RFA, sees Pure Storage as a company focused on hardware, not software, problems. As an earlier entrant into the all-flash market, Pure attacked one of flash memory’s big early problems, the tendency of flash chips to wear out more quickly than disk memory. “Pure created optimizations to prolong the life of flash drives,” he says. But as the price of flash has fallen, it’s become more affordable to replace flash memory that wears out. And while a useful feature, a longer life for the memory does not deliver significant features that impact how the customer uses storage, says Milis. “In terms of functionality, Pure is not that different from a typical storage array,” he says.
SolidFire, on the other hand, offers features that have an impact on how his applications perform, says Milis. Those features include quality of service and multitenancy, Milis says. CPUC’s Fuller adds that Pure did not offer “scale-out” architecture, another valuable feature, because it makes it easy to expand capacity. Pure’s “scale-up” architecture often requires replacement of equipment (the proverbial “fork-lift upgrade”), a riskier and more time-consuming proposition for a customer.
There was also controversy over Pure’s revenue level when the company went public. Early this year, analyst firm Gartner estimated that Pure had revenue of $276 million for calendar 2014. But when the company published its S-1 filing in August, it showed revenue of just $174 million for the year to January 2015. Prior to the S-1’s publication, Pure CEO Scott Dietzen used the Gartner estimates to make the growth of the flash sector of the storage market look greater than it actually was. According to this press report, Dietzen told a conference that flash array sales more than doubled in 2014 to $1.4 billion. (Dietzen obviously knew there were flaws in the Gartner figures, since he knew his own company’s actual revenue.) Since many of the numbers in the Gartner study are not published by the companies themselves, it’s hard to know if other revenue figures were inflated, as Pure’s was. (For this reason, the Daily Cloud prefers to use revenue figures cited by vendors themselves, rather than conveyed through third parties.) Of course, in August, investors became aware of Pure’s true financial data, and invested (or not) in the October IPO with accurate data. But at least one Wall Street analyst has come to the same conclusion we reached after discussing flash storage with customers. In a report published on Nov. 6th, Jefferies analyst James Kisner wrote: “we continue to struggle to find an end user or expert that can point to a source of competitive advantage for Pure Storage.”
SolidFire refuses to comment on its revenue or growth rate, yet the company seems to be growing well. It said it expects to increase its headcount by some 46% this year, and Prassl said he expects the company to reach 500 employees by year-end. In September it announced that it has expanded into Germany and France, naming the respected German cloud provider 1&1 as a customer. The company needs to sign up some well-known customers in the U.S. market. It also needs to continue to add more key features to compete head-to-head with the storage majors. Albert Fuller says he’s waiting for his SolidFire systems to be able to handle NFS and CIFS file types. SolidFire VP of Marketing Jay Prassl tells us that those capabilities are on the roadmap and the company will begin to reveal details of the next version of its software in February.
SolidFire customer Grigoriy Milis sees the rising importance of software as the key trend in storage. “We are moving towards software-defined storage,” he says. “Scalability is best achieved by abstracting software from storage hardware. And SolidFire will eventually be able to release their solution in software. If you can buy your own hardware, and load their software onto it, that’s a great solution.”