Flash storage can help some IT operations, despite cost

Flash storage can help some IT operations, despite cost

AMD recently deployed a 6TB NAND flash storage array into a virtual server test environment and got some amazing results, says Fred Abounader, a performance systems engineer at the chip maker.

In virtualization benchmarking tests, the all-flash WhipTail array helped reduce latency by a factor of 50 and yielded a 40% performance improvement over the company's hard disk drives (HDD).

While the array is running in a test environment, the data is real, consisting of email, databases, Web 2.0 applications and more. "It's like a real life data center," said Abounader.

AMD is looking to determine whether its servers could be overcommitted and still run the business.

With just one 6TB flash array from WhipTail, the system was able to achieve 86,000 I/Os per second (IOPS) for virtual machines that typically saw only 6,000 IOPS using a SAN with 400 15,000-rpm hard drives connected by a Fibre Channel network.

After a few months of testing, "there have been zero issues," said Abounader.

AMD is part of a small but growing universe of companies that are either evaluating or adopting flash technology -- both all-flash arrays and less-expensive solid state drives (SSD). Flash has long been seen as a promising technology, but its high cost continues to scare off most IT executives.

In a recent TheInfoPro survey of 255 IT professionals, about 7% of the respondents said they currently use all-flash arrays and 6% said they plan to deploy the technology within 18 months. Meanwhile, 37% said they plan to deploy less-expensive SSD technology, up from just 7% a year earlier.

"We see that flash is starting to change the business world," said Kobi Rozengarten, a managing partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners, an investment firm.

Rozengarten is quick to admit that NAND flash storage will never beat the per-gigabyte price of HDD systems. But for applications like virtual desktop infrastructures and online relational databases, the technology can be very cost effective, he contends.

Vail Systems, a telephony service provider, turned to an all-flash setup to boost database response times, said David Fruin, vice president of engineering.

Vail runs interactive customer care and conference-call voice response systems, mostly for banks and insurance companies. As the volume of calls increased, Vail's HDDs couldn't keep up.

So Vail initially added 2.5-in. Intel SSDs to its Dell servers and later installed two 1TB PCIe flash modules from Virident Systems. The SSDs yielded a fourfold improvement in performance over the HDDs. And then the PCIe modules improved performance by a factor of 10. "We were looking for four times improvement and we got 10 times, so we were surprised," said Fruin.

Fruin acknowledged that the technology is expensive -- each Virident module cost $13,000. But other systems aren't necessarily cheaper. "[Flash costs] a lot of money," he said, "[but] the alternative was to throw a lot of RAM into the boxes, which is even more expensive."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

Read more about data storage in Computerworld's Data Storage Topic Center.

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