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Writable shared flash volumes highlight E8 Storage upgrade

E8 adds parallel file-system support for IBM Spectrum Scale and Oracle RAC deployments. Applications read and write to a shared flash volume on E8-D24 and new E8 X-24 arrays.

Startup E8 Storage has sharpened the focus of its nonvolatile memory express all-flash arrays, adding support for parallel file systems in a bid to boost scalability and shared flash storage.

The upgrade scales capacity beyond a single deployment and allows a host machine to access multiple E8 Storage appliances. The enhanced E8 Storage software supports shared writable volumes, which the vendor claims allows 96 clustered hosts to read and write to the same volume in parallel at line speed. That feature is geared initially to organizations running IBM Spectrum Scale -- formerly IBM General Parallel File System -- and Oracle Real Application Cluster (RAC) environments, although shared flash has implications for any parallel file system used in technical computing.

The vendor this week also previewed E8-X24 block arrays at the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, Calif. The X-24 is a companion to the flagship E8 Storage D-24 rack-scale flash system that it launched last year. The X-24 will allow customers to mix and match NAND flash and storage-class memory in the same box. E8 Storage said X-24 proofs of concept are underway at cloud providers, financial services and travel industry firms. The X-24 array is expected to be generally available in the fourth quarter.

"The focus of this release is to increase the agility of our system for application acceleration. We're supporting more parallel file architectures to help customers get the most processing power and move away from serial access to data," said Julie Herd, director of technical marketing for E8 Storage.

Shared writable volumes connect multiple hosts to back end

The nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) host controller interface is designed to speed data transfer between host systems and flash media. The NVMe protocol transmits the packets across the PCI Express interconnect, bypassing the traditional network hops between networking components.

The E8 Storage shared flash block system uses dual-ported server and rack hardware from AIC Inc. It scales to 140 TB  of usable flash per rack using 24 qualified NVMe drives up to 7.68 TB capacities. Drives connect via a Remote Direct Memory Access over Converged Ethernet high-performance fabric. E8 client software handles dynamic LUN, RAID 6 schemes and thin provisioning.

Although the concept of sharing a volume isn't a new idea, supporting it with block storage is a challenge. It requires vendors to enable software capabilities in the storage layer, particularly a locking mechanism to allow clustered servers to simultaneously read and write results to the same volume, without interfering with one another.

In its rack-scale deployment, each server sees E8 Storage servers as local block storage. A parallel file system writes data to those servers at the host level. The E8 agent responds to lock calls to prevent data collisions, as multiple hosts attempt to access the volume in real time.

"This was one of the early-on requests we had from customers: the ability to have read and write access to shared flash. We've had it in test with IBM Spectrum Scale for a couple months. Now, we're ready to launch," Herd said.

Eric Burgener, a storage analyst with IT firm IDC, said E8 Storage offers a potential alternative to the Oracle Exadata in-memory product that supports large Oracle RAC deployments, which require underlying high-performance storage. Oracle does not have an end-to-end NVMe implementation for Exadata.

"For a company the size of E8 Storage, selling even 10 systems in a year into Oracle RAC environments would be a pretty big deal. They have a better performance than Oracle Exadata and cost about one-third less. Now is the time for E8 to get into those environments that will be looking to refresh every quarter," Burgener said.

Other potential use cases for E8 to pursue involve parallel file-system-based technical computing for big data, fraud detection, life sciences, online transaction processing and seismic processing, Burgener said.

Choose between flash, SCM, with dedicated RAID

Herd said E8 Storage is testing the forthcoming X-24 array with Intel's Optane-based storage-class memory SSDs. The Optane drives provide a persistent memory cache designed to mimic the performance of an in-memory database.

Rather than an in-memory cluster accessing servers across a network, E8 said its architecture provides better scalability by eliminating dedicated storage into the servers. Dedicated network links ensure each tier of storage gets sufficient bandwidth.

One feature lacking is dynamic tiering between shared flash and storage-class memory. Herd said E8 Storage customers will have to determine which database apps require in-memory-like performance.

The upgrade allows a host to access multiple E8 Storage appliances. Initially, customers could connect 96 host servers to the appliance. The new configuration allows NAND flash and Intel Optane SSDs to be shared across D-24 and X-24 arrays. Instead of one large RAID configuration, customers could create smaller, multiple RAID groups and dedicate each to a specific cluster.

E8 Storage is among a handful of startup vendors trying to peddle fast and scalable, shared flash storage using off-the-shelf NVMe drives. Other entrants include Apeiron Data Systems and software-defined Excelero. Two other hopefuls, Pavilion Data Systems and Vexata, have yet to formally unveil their storage gear.

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