This week, IBM announced its new line of x86 servers, and included among the usual incremental product improvements is a performance game-changer called eXFlash. eXFlash is the first commercially available implantation of the MCS architecture announced last year by Diablo Technologies. The MCS architecture, and IBM’s eXFlash offering in particular, allows flash memory to be embedded on the system as close to the CPU as main memory, with latencies substantially lower than any other available flash options, offering better performance at a lower solution cost than other embedded flash solutions. Key aspects of the announcement include:
■ Flash DIMMs offer scalable high performance. Write latency (a critical metric) for IBM eXFlash will be in the 5 to 10 microsecond range, whereas best-of-breed competing mezzanine card and PCIe flash can only offer 15 to 20 microseconds (and external flash storage is slower still). Additionally, since the DIMMs are directly attached to the memory controller, flash I/O does not compete with other I/O on the system I/O hub and PCIe subsystem, improving overall system performance for heavily-loaded systems. Additional benefits include linear performance scalability as the number of DIMMs increase and optional built-in hardware mirroring of DIMM pairs.
■ eXFlash DIMMs are compatible with current software. Part of the magic of MCS flash is that it appears to the OS as a standard block-mode device, so all existing block-mode software will work, including applications, caching and tiering or general storage management software. For IBM users, compatibility with IBM’s storage management and FlashCache Storage Accelerator solutions is guaranteed. Other vendors will face zero to low effort in qualifying their solutions.
As the new year looms, thoughts turn once again to our annual reading of the tea leaves, in this case focused on what I see coming in server land. We’ve just published the full report, Predictions for 2014: Servers & Data Centers, but as teaser, here are a few of the major highlights from the report:
1. Increasing choices in form factor and packaging – I&O pros will have to cope with a proliferation of new form factors, some optimized for dense low-power cloud workloads, some for general purpose legacy IT, and some for horizontal VM clusters (or internal cloud if you prefer). These will continue to appear in an increasing number of variants.
2. ARM – Make or break time is coming, depending on the success of coming 64-bit ARM CPU/SOC designs with full server feature sets including VM support.
3. The beat goes on – Major turn of the great wheel coming for server CPUs in early 2014.
4. Huge potential disruption in flash architecture – Introduction of flash in main memory DIMM slots has the potential to completely disrupt how flash is used in storage tiers, and potentially can break the current storage tiering model, initially physically with the potential to ripple through memory architectures.
In his 1956 dystopian sci-fi novel “The City and the Stars”, Arthur C. Clarke puts forth the fundamental design tenet for making eternal machines, “A machine shall have no moving parts”. To someone from the 1950s current computers would appear to come close to that ideal – the CPUs and memory perform silent magic and can, with some ingenuity, be passively cooled, and invisible electronic signals carry information in and out of them to networks and … oops, to rotating disks, still with us after more than five decades[i]. But, as we all know, salvation has appeared on the horizon in the form of solid-state storage, so called flash storage (actually an idea of several decades standing as well, just not affordable until recently).
The initial substitution of flash for conventional storage yields immediate gratification in the form of lower power, maybe lower cost if used effectively, and higher performance, but the ripple effect benefits of flash can be even more pervasive. However, the implementation of the major architectural changes engendered across the whole IT stack by the use of flash is a difficult conceptual challenge for users and largely addressed only piecemeal by most vendors. Enter IBM and its Flashahead initiative.
What is Happening?
On Friday, April 11, IBM announced a major initiative, to the tune of a spending commitment of $1B, to accelerate the use of flash technology by means of three major programs:
· Fundamental flash R&D
· New storage products built on flash-only memory technology
For the vast majority of Forrester customers who I have not had the pleasure of meeting, my name is Henry Baltazar and I'm the new analyst covering Storage for the I&O team. I've covered the Storage industry for over 15 years and spent the first 9 years of my career as a Technical Analyst at eWEEK/PCWeek Labs, where I was responsible for benchmarking storage systems, servers and Network Operating Systems.
During my lab days, I tested hundreds of different products and was fortunate to witness the development and maturation of a number of key innovations such as data deduplication, WAN optimization and scale-out storage. In the technology space "Better, Faster, Cheaper - Pick Two" used to be the design goal for many innovators, and I've seen many technologies struggle to attain two, let alone three of these goals, especially in the first few product iterations. For example, while iSCSI was able to challenge Fibre Channel on the basis of being cheaper - despite being around for over a decade many storage professionals are still not convinced that iSCSI is faster or better.
Looking at storage technologies today, relative to processors and networking, storage has not held up its end of the bargain. Storage needs to improve in all three vectors to either push innovation forward, or avoid being viewed as a bottleneck in the infrastructure. At Forrester I will be looking at a number of areas of innovation which should drive enterprise storage capabilities to new heights including:
On Monday, February 13, HP announced its next turn of the great wheel for servers with the announcement of its Gen8 family of servers. Interestingly, since the announcement was ahead of Intel’s official announcement of the supporting E5 server CPUs, HP had absolutely nothing to say about the CPUs or performance of these systems. But even if the CPU information had been available, it would have been a sideshow to the main thrust of the Gen8 launch — improving the overall TCO (particularly Opex) of servers by making them more automated, more manageable, and easier to remediate when there is a problem, along with enhancements to storage, data center infrastructure management (DCIM) capabilities, and a fundamental change in the way that services and support are delivered.
With a little more granularity, the major components of the Gen8 server technology announcement included:
Onboard Automation – A suite of capabilities and tools that provide improved agentless local intelligence to allow quicker and lower labor cost provisioning, including faster boot cycles, “one click” firmware updates of single or multiple systems, intelligent and greatly improved boot-time diagnostics, and run-time diagnostics. This is apparently implemented by more powerful onboard management controllers and pre-provisioning a lot of software on built-in flash memory, which is used by the onboard controller. HP claims that the combination of these tools can increase operator productivity by up to 65%. One of the eye-catching features is an iPhone app that will scan a code printed on the server and go back through the Insight Management Environment stack and trigger the appropriate script to provision the server.[i]Possibly a bit of a gimmick, but a cool-looking one.
Earlier today, November 12, Deepa Subramaniam posted on the Flex Team Blog:
Does Adobe recommend we use Flex or HTML5 for our enterprise application development?
In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development.
In the short term, vendors and marketing technologists using Flex for application development can continue without ripping and replacing their user interfaces. Adobe will donate the Flex SDK to an (as yet unnamed) foundation for future development, while still providing support for Flex and the Flash Builder development tool.
However, Adobe’s clear emphasis on HTML5 – and lack of a recipient for the Flex SDK – create long-term problems for CI pros:
Slowed marketing technology release cycles. Adobe’s announcement throws a wrench into the development cycles for vendors of enterprise marketing technologies that use Flex, such as IBM Coremetrics, SAP, SAS. At some point, vendors that use Flex will need to incorporate a migration from Flex into their development road maps, pulling resources from other product features.
Well actually I meant mobs of flash, but I couldn’t resist the word play. Although, come to think of it, flash mobs might be the right way to describe the density of flash memory system vendors here at Oracle Open World. Walking around the exhibits it seems as if every other booth is occupied by someone selling flash memory systems to accelerate Oracle’s database, and all of them claiming to be: 1) faster than anything that Oracle, who already integrates flash into its systems, offers, and 2) faster and/or cheaper than the other flash vendor two booths down the aisle.
All joking aside, the proliferation of flash memory suppliers is pretty amazing, although a venue devoted to the world’s most popular database would be exactly where you might expect to find them. In one sense flash is nothing new – RAM disks, arrays of RAM configured to mimic a disk, have been around since the 1970s but were small and really expensive, and never got on a cost and volume curve to drive them into a mass-market product. Flash, benefitting not only from the inherent economies of semiconductor technology but also from the drivers of consumer volumes, has the transition to a cost that makes it a reasonable alternative for some use case, with database acceleration being probably the most compelling. This explains why the flash vendors are gathered here in San Francisco this week to tout their wares – this is the richest collection of potential customers they will ever see in one place.
In the good old days, computer industry trade shows were bigger than life events – booths with barkers and actors, ice cream and espresso bars and games in the booth, magic acts and surging crowds gawking at technology. In recent years, they have for the most part become sad shadows of their former selves. The great SHOWS are gone, replaced with button-down vertical and regional events where you are lucky to get a pen or a miniature candy bar for your troubles.
Enter Oracle OpenWorld. Mix 45,000 people, hundreds of exhibitors, one of the world’s largest software and systems company looking to make an impression, and you have the new generation of technology extravaganza. The scale is extravagant, taking up the entire Moscone Center complex (N, S and W) along with a couple of hotel venues, closing off a block of a major San Francisco street for a week, and throwing a little evening party for 20 or 30 thousand people.
But mixed with the hoopla, which included wheel of fortune giveaways that had hundreds of people snaking around the already crowded exhibition floor in serpentine lines, mini golf and whack-a-mole-games in the exhibit booths along with the aforementioned espresso and ice cream stands, there was genuine content and the public face of some significant trends. So far, after 24 hours, some major messages come through loud and clear:
But there's another big story behind this Flash fiasco that has successfully remained off the radar of most. It's the answer to this question: How do the media companies -- you know, those people who use Flash to put their premium content online everywhere from Wired.com to hulu.com -- feel about having their primary delivery tool cut off at the knees?
Answer: Media companies hope to complain all the way to the bank.
First, a bit of disclosure. I'm the one who went on record explaining that the lack of Flash is one of the reasons I am not buying an iPad. So I'm clearly not a fan of the anti-Flash rhetoric for selfish reasons: I want my Flash content wherever I am. But I've spent the last few weeks discussing the Apple-Adobe problem with major magazine publishers, newspaper publishers, and TV networks. Their responses are at first obvious, and then surprisingly shrewd.