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Flash storage arrays gain features, boost capacity

New all-flash storage array models from IBM, Violin Memory and Kaminario follow trend of boosting data reduction and management features, adding higher capacity options.

All-flash array vendors that originally fixated on extreme performance are beefing up their storage saving and data management features and adding higher capacity options to keep pace in the fast-growing market.

In the past six months, IBM, Violin Memory and Kaminario launched new all-flash array (AFA) models that can scale beyond 250 terabytes (TB) and supply the types of storage features that are staples of traditional disk-based arrays. Other AFA vendors are also racing to fill feature gaps such as inline deduplication and compression, snapshots, replication and data encryption.

Those capabilities have become "must-haves" as flash storage arrays mature and AFA deployments expand beyond performance acceleration to a broader range of use cases, according to Randy Kerns, a senior strategist at Evaluator Group Inc. in Boulder, Colorado.

Kerns noted that the first wave of AFAs were expensive and limited in capacity, often with less than 100 TB. Early adopters used them mostly for a single IOPS-needy application such as a mission-critical database, virtual desktop infrastructure or virtual server.

Data reduction technologies such as deduplication and compression help to improve the economic argument for flash storage arrays, as does the declining price of flash. Plus, expanded capacity options facilitate running multiple applications on the AFAs.

"Flash arrays can simplify the environment for customers. They don't need to do a lot of performance tuning. They get that great performance without having to go in and really manage data placement," Kerns said. "So now, they can say, 'Hey, this is so easy. It made things run better. Let's just throw more of my applications on it.'"

Enterprise storage features are crucial when AFAs are used for mission-critical applications such as ERP, CRM and electronic commerce applications, according to Arun Taneja, consulting analyst at Taneja Group in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

"This is a very high-performance array, but I still need to be able to control it. It still needs to have data protection and data efficiency characteristics," Taneja said. "And if one vendor does it, then it's game over for everybody else unless they do it, too."

Some AFA vendors have already witnessed the potential consequences. Violin Memory was one of the first major players in purpose-built, performance-focused AFAs and led the nascent flash storage array market in revenue in 2012. The Santa Clara, California-based company fell to third place last year, posting only a modest bump in sales from $72.1 million to $88.3 million while the overall market almost tripled, according to Gartner Inc.

"They've realized that the low-function all-flash array is not going to make them successful," said Mark Peters, a senior analyst at Milford, Massachusetts-based Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. "They've done something about that in [the products], and they're also revamping the management team and the marketing."

Violin hired software engineers, purchased a source code license for technology from FalconStor and partnered with Microsoft to help bolster the feature set. It has since released two new product lines. The Windows Flash Array bundled in thin provisioning, post-process deduplication and compression, snapshots, mirroring and data-in-flight encryption through Microsoft's Windows Storage Server R2 embedded software. The Concerto 7000 All Flash Array includes data services such as synchronous and remote asynchronous replication, stretch metro cluster capabilities and advanced data protection. Inline deduplication and compression are due later this year.

"No global enterprise is going to deploy 10 petabytes (PB) of all flash to replace 50 PB of disk storage if there's not replication or snapshots. They need that data protection," said Eric Herzog, Violin's chief marketing officer and senior vice president of business development.

Market-leading IBM sells a stripped down, extreme performance-focused AFA for application acceleration and a feature-rich model for customers that view flash as alternative to hard-disk drives. In January, IBM unveiled its new FlashSystem 840, which doubled the performance of its predecessor. Later, in March, the company launched the feature-rich FlashSystem V840, which bundles the 840 and the software stack of the IBM System Storage SAN Volume Controller. That stack includes thin provisioning, inline compression, snapshots and replication.

Kaminario reduced the price of its AFA from $8.69 per GB to $2.55 per GB when it released its feature-enhanced K2 version 5 in May. It expanded maximum raw capacity from 240 TB to 307.2 TB.

Other AFAs receiving booster shots this year include EMC's XtremIO (snapshots, encryption), Hewlett-Packard's 3PAR StoreServ 7450 (hardware-accelerated inline deduplication, thin clones, higher density flash drives, expanded raw capacity to 460 TB), the Hitachi Unified Storage VM (three-data center replication), NetApp's EF550 (encryption) and Pure Storage's FlashArray (replication).

Some arrays built exclusively for flash had extensive feature sets prior to this year. For instance, Nimbus Data Systems shipped thin provisioning, inline dedupe and compression, snapshots, clones, replication, encryption and quality of service at no extra cost.

Pure Storage, Skyera and SolidFire also offered features to varying degrees, EMC's XtremIO notably had thin provisioning and inline deduplication and Violin offered thin provisioning and snapshots. But, the push to add or enhance features intensified this year with the purpose-built AFAS, and several vendors noted plans to fill in key missing capabilities by year's end or next year.

Jim Handy, chief analyst at Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, California, recalled vendors such as Whiptail and Dataram telling him more than five years ago that their all-flash arrays would "completely knock all of the established storage vendors out of the water." He said their predictions failed to materialize because of the lack of features.

"That's a huge part of setting yourself ahead from other manufacturers," Handy said. "A box full of flash is nice, but if the data center manager has to do an awful lot of stuff to get it up and running, then it's not so nice anymore."

Next Steps

Violin storage adds WFA models, pay-as-you-grow option

SolidFire SSD array gets plug-in for VM-level QoS

Kaminario adds dedupe, density to K2 flash array

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What features do you consider must haves for an all flash array?