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Potential NVMe benefits spark enterprise IT interest

Enterprise IT pros who have seen the benefits of conventional flash storage are looking ahead to potential use cases for faster NVMe-based technologies.

IT pros accustomed to SAS- and SATA-based flash storage performance are eagerly anticipating the latest NVMe technologies....

Some are already using nonvolatile memory express for demanding applications, while others wait for vendor support.

NVMe-based solid-state drives (SSDs) can lower latency and boost performance, compared with the standard SAS- and SATA-based SSDs that are the norm in most IT organizations. NVMe over Fabrics (NVMe-oF) can extend the NVMe benefits across a network, between application servers and storage arrays.

Although these are early days for NVMe, some enterprises already made the jump for select application workloads that have especially high I/O requirements. Market statistics indicate those users are in the distinct minority, but adoption should start to increase as storage vendors ramp up support and enterprise NVMe-based PCI Express SSDs drop in price.

NVMe benefits for database response time

Baystate Health took the leap to NVMe-based SSDs last year to try to boost database response time. The healthcare provider, based in Springfield, Mass., uses VMware's vSAN hyper-converged infrastructure on Cisco Unified Computing System server hardware across three data centers in about a 10-mile radius.

"It's not like we want to do cool, fancy things," said Raj Subramanian, director of IT infrastructure and technology at Baystate Health. He said NVMe had become "necessary for the response time."

Subramanian said Baystate's InterSystems Caché database, in particular, requires low response time to prevent corruption and performance issues.

"Overall, NVMe improved the cache performance," Subramanian said, "but it still hasn't been determined if the performance is good enough for Caché's IOPS requirements."

Financial institutions tend to be early adopters of any new technologies that can boost performance. One technical director in infrastructure architecture said his financial services firm used Fusion-io's PCIe-based SSDs before shifting to standard NVMe-based PCIe SSDs as soon as the drives became available.

"It's definitely significantly faster. And the pricing has come down on the NVMe drives, so it's actually pretty competitive, especially in comparison to a SAS flash drive," said the technical director, who asked that neither his name nor company be identified.

The financial services firm bought Samsung NVMe-based PCIe SSDs for its Aerospike in-memory NoSQL database running on Dell servers, with plans to explore storage-class memory for its trading systems and in-memory databases. The technical director said the firm's other databases use conventional disk- and flash-based SAN storage, and the company's virtual servers connect to Pure Storage and Dell EMC XtremIO all-flash arrays.

Flash users anticipate NVMe benefits

For many enterprise users, the performance that all-flash arrays equipped with conventional SAS- or SATA-based SSDs offer has been good enough to meet their application needs. But now that they've gotten a sense of the benefits that ordinary flash can bring, some are starting to envision use cases for NVMe-based technologies.

"I wouldn't rule it out," said Alton Levesque, IT strategic director of enterprise platform engineering at LabCorp in Burlington, N.C. "The medical and science communities are always doing interesting things. Right now, the [conventional] SSDs are doing very well, but we're keeping our eye on NVMe and seeing where that's going."

Chad Brannan, an infrastructure architect at Patterson Companies, a Minnesota-based distributor of dental and veterinary supplies, is considering the potential upsides of a shift to "ridiculously fast" NVMe technologies with its e-commerce and customer service databases.

"Anytime we can drive down the I/O latency, it's going to drive up our ability to deliver faster to the customers what they want," Brannan said. "We have a large competitor. We both carry the same product lines. We just want to make sure we get that sale, and we keep them happy."

Brannan said Patterson's internal employees could potentially reduce the response times for customer-assistance calls. He said extra seconds add up over time, and "next thing you know, you've got to hire another FTE [full-time equivalent] because your back-end storage isn't fast enough to be able to handle what one person can do in an average day."

San Antonio-based Frost Bank is a large Pure Storage customer, with seven Pure FlashArrays and three FlashBlades equipped with conventional SSDs. Daniel King, senior vice president of IT operations, predicted the bank will use NVMe by early 2019. That transition should be easy, because Pure promises nondisruptive upgrades to NVMe-based SSDs in its FlashArrays in 2018.

"Honestly, it's about the load of the Pures. Our load is running about 60%, 70%. And as you grow, once you get hooked, you see very quickly how much you can put on it," King said.

King cited the example of the bank's VMware server farm with about 150 TB of data. He said that data reduces to about 12 TB after deduplication and compression, and he balances the load equally across three Pure Storage arrays. He said faster NVMe could offer benefits in balancing the controller load.

Potential NVMe benefits in power reduction

Central New Mexico Community College is also a Pure Storage customer. Bill Halverson, a senior adviser to the CIO at the college, based in Albuquerque, N.M., sees NVMe as a possible way to reduce power and cooling requirements and overall storage costs.

Beatriz DeStefano, a system administration manager at Nemours Children's Hospital, said her organization might not currently have a need for NVMe. But she recognizes requirements could change as the healthcare provider grows and adds more clinics and patients. Nemours, which has hospitals and clinics in Florida and Delaware, currently uses a mix of all-flash and hybrid storage.

"NVMe is the future," said DeStefano, who is keeping tabs on vendors' NVMe support plans.

NVMe use cases

Uses cases that Gartner research vice president Joseph Unsworth sees for NVMe include hyperscale, analytics and high-performance computing workloads that require massive data ingestion, high-performance database management systems and consolidation.

Unsworth recalled the introduction of PCIe cards enabling massive server consolidation, translating to a lower server count and fewer database licenses. Unsworth said NVMe-based technologies could play out in a similar way.

"If you want to drive mass adoption, you have to give them a way to go to the CFO and say, 'We're going to go to this high-end technology that's going to cost more, and we're going to be able to pay for it by some other cost savings,'" Unsworth said. "That seems the lowest-hanging fruit, but that's going to take time to drive the education and the adoption."

Gartner statistics projected a 17% attach rate for PCIe SSDs in servers and 5% in storage arrays in 2017. By 2020, the rate will be 69% for servers and 26% in storage arrays, according to Gartner projections.

Unsworth said single-ported, NVMe-based PCIe SSDs are 45% faster than SATA SSDs and approaching price parity with them, opening the door for hyperscale users to shift to them on the server side. But he said storage arrays with dual-ported enterprise NVMe-based PCIe SSDs currently command a 15% to 40% price premium over traditional arrays, and they're not especially plentiful.

"Once we see more competition, the premiums are going to get beaten down. It's going to take some time. We think probably the second half of [2018]," Unsworth predicted.

True NVMe benefits with end-to-end use

Unsworth also noted that IT users won't be able to fully exploit the performance capabilities of NVMe until they can use the technology end to end through NVMe over Fabrics. He said NVMe-oF is immature and probably won't become a factor until 2019, when more vendors offer true end-to-end options. NVMe-oF-based products might not get into users' hands until 2020, he added.

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