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Violin flash upgrade: Is it a high note or swan song?

Struggling Violin Memory launches two new Flash Storage Platform arrays with improved performance, lower latency and encryption in hopes of surviving in crowded all-flash market.

Violin Memory Inc. launched two higher-performing all-flash arrays, an updated operating system, a platinum support...

option and a set of service-level guarantees, as the company tries to reverse its dismal financial condition.

The Violin Flash Storage Platform (FSP) 7650 takes aim at databases, data analytics and in-memory computing applications in need of exceptionally low latency and high performance.

Violin claimed the FSP 7650 could deliver latency of less than 200 microseconds at 1 million IOPS, or 1 millisecond of latency at 2 million IOPS. The company's most closely comparable product, FSP 7600, which shipped in 2015, offers a peak performance of 1 million IOPS at 500 microseconds of latency.

The other new Violin flash array, FSP 7450, boosts performance to a lesser degree and features always-on inline data deduplication and compression to reduce costs. Violin claimed the FSP 7450 would price out at 60 cents per gigabyte, assuming a 6:1 data reduction; although, company officials acknowledged data deduplication and compression ratios can vary considerably by application.

Raw capacity ranges from 8.8 TB to 140 TB in a single 3U enclosure for both the FSP 7650 and FSP 7450 all-flash arrays. Pricing starts at $82,000 for both arrays at the 8.8 TB level.

Concerto OS remastered

The main new feature in the 7.6 update of Violin's Concerto operating system is software-based data-at-rest encryption that complies with Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 and Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit XTS standards. Violin supported encryption in the past with its 6000 series of all-flash arrays, but the FSP models did not support it until the Concerto OS 7.6 release.

Other integrated data services in Concerto OS include snapshots, clones, asynchronous replication, thick and thin provisioning, and LUN mirroring.

All FSP customers have a new option for personalized assistance through Violin's Platinum Support Service. The platinum offering includes all gold-level benefits, including a trained technician on site within four hours to replace any part and Callhome technology to notify customers of problems. Platinum support tacks on extras, such as a service account manager for proactive planning, a direct line to support staff for troubleshooting, monthly service reviews, semiannual health checks and on-site training options.

Customers who buy the platinum- and gold-level support services also get the following service-level guarantees:

  • Effective storage capacity that achieves a promised ratio for data reduction for specific application workloads.
  • Uptime of 99.9999% for FSP 7700 customers using Violin's Stretch Metro Cluster technology.
  • No increases in service pricing for customers who renew their FSP support agreements.
  • Replacement of flash modules if they wear out during the usable life of the customer's FSP array.
  • Ability to purchase capacity instantly and nondisruptively, since FSP arrays ship at full capacity and enable customers to add more as they need it.

Platinum pricing is 16% of the discounted price of the all-flash array for one year and 45% for three years, or 15% per year, according to Keith Parker, director of product marketing at Violin, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Market share struggles

Violin was among the first vendors to sell all-flash storage arrays. "We invented the industry," Violin CEO Kevin DeNuccio said during Wednesday's product launch webcast. Back in 2012, Gartner ranked Violin No. 1 in the flash array market, with $72 million in revenue. But Violin flash sales have slowed to a trickle, and it is barely hanging on. Violin reported only $7.5 million in revenue for last quarter. It has lost $603.3 million during its history, including $99.1 million in 2015 and $42.7 million in the first six months of 2016. Violin is down to $31.4 million in cash and equivalents, which doesn't give it much time to ramp up sales of its new FSP arrays.

Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting in Beaverton, Ore., said the latest Violin flash array additions, feature improvements and support enhancements are unlikely to be a "game changer."

"It's a fine product, and it's very competitive in the marketplace. But, at this point, the viability of the company is a much higher concern than the products," Staimer said. "The company viability becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. You're in a downward spin. You can't get out of it because people are worried."

Eric Burgener, a storage research director at IDC, said it was troubling to see Violin's product sales accounted for only about $2 million last quarter. He noted that most of its revenue came from support contracts, and Violin added only two new customers for the quarter.

"It's going to be very difficult for them to get out of the hole that they're in. And I hate to say that, because they've actually got a pretty good all-flash product. But the momentum has just gone against them," Burgener said. "I don't know if a better product is going to be able to pull them out of this difficult time that they're in. They doubled down on what's already been a strength for them in the performance area. But it's a different market than it was when performance was king with flash."

If we were a private company, the success of our FSP launch would be viewed as a strong success.
Amy Lovechief marketing officer, Violin Memory

Burgener said all major storage players now have all-flash arrays with ample feature sets. Violin flash systems emphasized performance in its early days, and the company was slow to add storage features required for arrays to go mainstream.

"Even if [Violin's] product is better [in performance and latency] than what EMC or HPE [Hewlett Packard Enterprise] or NetApp or IBM has, it doesn't make that big of a difference anymore, because all the majors have got a product that's clearly good enough to do mixed workload consolidation," Burgener said. "So, it's going to be very difficult for people to take a risk on a company that has had a bit of a troubled past."

Violin's chief marketing officer, Amy Love, said the new products and feature sets are designed to support workloads such as real-time inventory management, real-time big data analytics, and customer server and billing applications at Fortune 100 and Global 1000 companies. She said those large accounts take longer to win.

"But once you win them, they provide the ongoing revenue stream you need to support your return to growth. And that's the approach we're taking," Love said.

Love expressed confidence that Violin is "taking the right steps to reinvigorate top-line revenue growth." She said the product launch is a "big part of that approach."

"If we were a private company, the success of our FSP launch would be viewed as a strong success," she said. "The fact that we're doing a turnaround as a public company makes it more challenging."

Violin already started to preview its roadmap for next year. Planned enhancements include NVMe support to increase speed and reduce latency, as well as a Concerto OS update designed to run as a virtualized instance in clouds to help disaster recovery and storage tiering.

Next Steps

Learn how to vet all-flash storage array vendors

Enterprise adoption pushes all-flash array vendors forward

Enterprise customers in the flash storage market get more choices

Dig Deeper on All-flash arrays

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