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EBS Block Express helps AWS reinvent cloud SAN

Most of AWS' storage updates at AWS re:Invent 2020 make enterprise features more accessible to non-enterprise customers, but its Block Express high-IOPS volumes are unique.

Amazon wants to make its public cloud an option for high-performance SAN requirements instead of just a repository for backup and archive data.

One of several new AWS storage features showcased at AWS re:Invent 2020 this month, Amazon calls its EBS io2 Block Express volumes a "storage area network (SAN) for the cloud," because they offer SAN-like bandwidth. Amazon claimed Block Express volumes deliver up to 256,000 IOPS, 4,000 MBps throughput and 64 TB of capacity. These figures are four times those of standard io2 volumes.

Amazon EBS io2 volumes are provisioned on SSD hardware and aimed at customers who need high-performance cloud storage. Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, vice president of block and object storage at AWS, said general purpose io2 volumes didn't offer enough performance for massive high-transaction applications such as SAP HANA and Microsoft SQL Server. She said customers would commonly use SANs to handle these workloads or, alternatively, string multiple io2 volumes together, which were a hassle to manage. Block Express was designed to give the same performance as a SAN without any of the drawbacks such as pre-buying storage capacity, maintenance, power and cooling.

"It's the performance of a SAN in the cloud without the headaches," Tomsen Bukovec said in a virtual press session at AWS re:Invent 2020.

Block Express is currently in customer preview.

The roots of Block Express date to August 2019, when Amazon acquired NVMe flash startup E8 Storage and said it would put it to use in the AWS public cloud. Steve McDowell, senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said he was impressed at how Amazon took its acquisition and turned it into what he saw as a compelling and valuable offering.

"The performance numbers are comparable to flash, so when they say SAN for the cloud, they're not far off," McDowell said.

McDowell said he is not aware of anything analogous to Block Express from other public cloud vendors. Microsoft Azure's high-performance Premium SSD Managed Disks max out at 20,000 IOPS, 900 MBps and 32 TB -- far from the numbers Block Express claims. However, McDowell pointed out that technology-wise, there's nothing stopping Microsoft or Google from creating similar products. McDowell characterized cloud providers as, "a market full of fast followers." AWS made the first move in delivering performance in the cloud, so he expects other providers to release their own products shortly.

Amazon also rolled out new EBS Gp3 general purpose SSD volumes at re:Invent. These provide up to four times the IOPS and throughput as Gp2 volumes at the same capacity level. Gp2 volumes have their performance tied to their capacity, and Gp3 separates the two so customers looking for high performance don't end up paying for storage they don't need. Gp3 offers a baseline of 3,000 IOPS and 125 MBps of throughput and can scale up to 16,000 IOPS and 1,000 MBps.

Amazon S3 Intelligent-Tiering has been updated to include two archive tiers: S3 Glacier and S3 Glacier Deep Archive. Previously, Intelligent-Tiering was designed to save customers money by automatically moving data that hadn't been accessed in 30 days from the Frequent Access tier to the Infrequent Access tier. The enhancement lets the Intelligent-Tiering feature push dormant data into colder storage, providing greater cost savings. It is functionally similar to data protection and management provider Rubrik's Intelligent Data Tiering offering for Microsoft Azure.

Rounding out its storage enhancements, Amazon S3 Replication now can perform cross-region, multi-destination replication. This fulfills compliance, data sharing and data governance use cases. Previously, customers could only accomplish this through AWS Lambda functions or third-party tools.

McDowell said there is nothing new from a technology standpoint with these three updates. He specifically pointed out that Gp3 isn't a new feature so much as a new model for how AWS distributes cloud storage volumes, the archive tiers for Intelligent-Tiering are a logical extension of the offering and multi-target replication is something many backup vendors readily provide.

However, these add up to what McDowell sees as Amazon's big picture strategy: making the AWS cloud as flexible, simple and economical as possible to entice customers to leave the on-premises world behind. Part of that involves building in functionality that customers would otherwise have to buy a third-party product for. While something like S3 Replication won't completely replace the need for a backup vendor, it lightens the load and lowers the cost of using that vendor. As a bonus, this also makes enterprise-like features accessible to non-enterprise customers through AWS cloud, further pushing organizations to move workloads out of their data centers and capturing more of the market for Amazon.

"Amazon is very focused right now on tearing down the walls between what's possible on-prem and what's on the cloud. And they're very aggressive about it," McDowell said.

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