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Marvell’s upcoming DragonFly Virtual Storage Accelerator (VSA) card is designed for placement inside the server itself. The DragonFly uses speedy non-volatile RAM (NVRAM) as well as SATA-connected SSDs for cache capacity, but all data is committed to the storage array eventually. “This is focused on random writes, and it’s a new product category,” claims Shawn Kung, director of product marketing at Marvell. “DragonFly can yield an up to 10x higher virtual machine I/O per second, while lowering overhead cost by 50% or more.” The company plans to deliver production products in the fourth quarter.

EMC, famous for its large enterprise storage arrays, is also moving into server-side caching. Barry Burke, chief strategy officer for EMC Symmetrix, said EMC’s Lightning project “will integrate with the automated tiering capabilities already delivered to VMAX and VNX customers.” EMC previewed the project at the recent EMC World conference and plans to ship it later this year.

Virtualization-optimized storage

One common driver for the adoption of high-performance storage arrays is the expanding use of server virtualization. Hypervisors allow multiple virtual machines (VMs) to share a single hardware platform, which can have serious side effects when it comes to storage I/O. Rather than a slow and predictable stream of mostly sequential data, a busy virtual server environment is a fire hose torrent of random reads and writes.

This “I/O blender”

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challenges the basic assumptions used to develop storage system controllers and caching strategies, and vendors are rapidly adapting to the new rules. The deployment of SSD and flash caches help, but virtual servers are demanding in other ways as well. Virtual environments require extreme flexibility, with rapid storage provisioning and dynamic movement of workloads from machine to machine. Vendors like VMware Inc. are quickly rolling out technologies to integrate hypervisor and server management, including VMware’s popular vStorage API for Array Integration (VAAI).

Virtual server environments are an opportunity for innovation and new ideas, and startups are jumping into the fray. One such company, Tintri Inc., has developed a “VM-aware” storage system that combines SATA HDDs, NAND flash and inline data deduplication to meet the performance and flexibility needs of virtual servers. “Traditional storage systems manage LUNs, volumes or tiers, which have no intrinsic meaning for VMs,” said Tintri CEO Kieran Harty. “Tintri VMstore is managed in terms of VMs and virtual disks, and we were built from scratch to meet the demands of a VM environment.”

Tintri’s VM-aware storage target, isn’t the only option. IO Turbine Inc. leverages PCIe-based flash cards or SSDs in server hardware with Accelio, its VM-aware storage acceleration software. “Accelio enables more applications to be deployed on virtual machines without the I/O performance limitations of conventional storage,” claims Rich Boberg, IO Turbine’s CEO. The Accelio driver transparently redirects I/O requests to the flash as needed to reduce the load on existing storage arrays.

Capacity optimization

Not all data storage innovations are focused on performance. The growth of data has been a major challenge in many environments, and deleting data isn’t always an acceptable answer. Startups like Ocarina and Storwize updated existing technologies like compression and single-instance storage (SIS) for modern storage applications. Now that these companies are in the hands of major vendors (Dell Inc. and IBM, respectively), users are beginning to give capacity optimization a serious look.

Reducing storage has ripple effects, requiring less capacity for replication, backup and disaster recovery (DR) as well as primary data storage. “The Ocarina technology is flexible enough to be optimized for the platforms we’re embedding the technology into,” said Mike Davis, marketing manager for Dell’s file system and optimization technologies. “This is an end-to-end strategy, so we’re looking closely at how we can extend these benefits beyond the storage platforms to the cloud as well as the server tier.”

This was first published in August 2011

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