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Storage acceleration and performance trouble IT admins

Though storage acceleration technologies are available, Taneja Group research shows that IT admins still struggle with performance.

In February of this year, Taneja Group conducted an online survey on storage acceleration and performance technologies. Nearly one-half of the survey respondents (48%) were from North America, with 22% from Europe and the rest from other parts of the world. The mix of industries was well-balanced and practically all major verticals were represented. We focused on midsize, large or very large enterprises. The titles of respondents ranged from IT architect to storage administrator, to manager/director/vice president of storage, with some having a broader range of responsibilities.

The survey was designed to gain insight into a number of areas:

  • Which storage acceleration technologies were being used by IT and why
  • The effectiveness of each technology
  • The perceived value of a variety of features available in the market
  • The perceived barriers for certain acceleration technologies

Approximately two years earlier, we conducted a similar survey on exactly the same topic and the findings gave us a solid understanding of how the market had -- and had not -- changed over that time.

The range of storage acceleration technologies included server-based PCI Express (PCIe) flash cards, flash-based read and/or read/write caching products, the addition of solid-state drives (SSDs) to existing hard-disk drive (HDD)-based arrays, specially designed hybrid arrays, all-flash arrays and purpose-built application accelerators.

Our findings were broad and revealing, but one thing jumped out: We as an industry are not closing the storage performance gap in the enterprise.

Enterprises continue to face significant storage performance challenges and the needle has barely moved in the past two years. More than one-third of respondents (38%) said storage performance was slowing application response time. More than one-fourth (26%) said storage performance issues were responsible for limited transactional throughput. Twenty-four percent felt that storage Capex was still too high and restricted one's ability to buy what was needed. More than two-thirds of enterprises (70%) experience performance issues with at least some of their most important apps, and of those, one-half feel the need to boost the storage performance of "many to all" of their business-critical apps. Nearly three quarters (72%) are thinking about deploying one or more storage acceleration products.

These stats are nearly identical to those from two years ago, indicating that enterprise users have basically been treading water during that time, just to keep their most critical apps afloat. It is as if nothing changed over a two-year span. Why?

Reasons for storage performance gap

We believe there are several reasons for this performance gap. First, the number of new performance-hungry apps seems to be growing faster than the hardware available to address them. Server/client virtualization, private cloud and big data apps are severely testing the performance of storage systems, and many enterprises can't invest fast enough or intelligently enough to address the rapidly mounting performance needs.

There still remains a lot of confusion about the range of storage acceleration products, whether they work, and which approach makes the most sense.

And, a significant percentage -- in our estimation, somewhere between 25% and 40% -- of mainstream IT buyers and practitioners are still not educated about various storage technologies, nor what those technologies can do for them. In fact, we noticed a split in the market, between enterprises that have significant awareness of and experience with storage acceleration products, and those that do not.

The former tend to be more highly virtualized and leading edge when it comes to embracing new technologies. We believe that a majority of technology, financial services, healthcare, and media and entertainment companies fit into this category, along with Web 2.0/hyperscale enterprises (across multiple industries) and technology service providers.

The latter group -- those that have less knowledge of and experience with acceleration products -- tend to be in more conservative companies and industries, less virtualized, and still employing largely traditional and siloed IT infrastructures.

Nevertheless, there has been some progress. Categories of storage acceleration products have become better defined and more sophisticated buyers tend to cross segment lines when shopping for them. Products have become more fully featured, and buyer expectations for them have become more reasonable and realistic.

Storage acceleration product mix causes confusion

Another reason for the continuing performance gap is the fact that buyers expect more than feeds and speeds in a storage acceleration product.

However, there still remains a lot of confusion about the range of storage acceleration products, whether they work, and which approach makes the most sense for any particular use case or application. For example, when you encounter an IO-starved or non-responsive app, should you beef up an existing array with some SSDs, invest in a hybrid array with auto-tiering or look at deploying a PCIe-based acceleration card in the server? Or should you simply add some read cache to get the job done?

Well-intentioned or not, most vendor attempts to steer buyers toward their specific products have muddied the waters further.

Acceleration products need more than feeds and speeds

Another reason for the continuing performance gap is the fact that buyers expect more than feeds and speeds in a storage acceleration product.

In the early days of flash-enabled acceleration, buyers focused primarily on performance metrics to decide on the best product. The primary question was, "Will this offering provide the latency reduction and IOPS boost that I need to achieve application performance goals?" When the buyer determined that the answer was "yes," they put that offering on the short list, without bothering to understand what the system might offer. The ultimate decision of which product to adopt usually came down to price.

This mindset has changed dramatically in the last few years, along with how companies approach evaluation and purchase. Today's buyers are also looking for other vital attributes, such as support for key features in the acceleration product. For example, availability features are almost always considered critical, since few enterprises can afford the risk of downtime of critical applications.

Regardless of the storage acceleration approach, users require products that maintain availability while improving performance. Buyers also focus on where the product will fit into the current environment, and how it will be managed.

Must-haves in storage acceleration products

Nearly one-third of respondents (30%) said they would not be willing to give up or compromise any features to solve an urgent performance problem. Only one-fifth of respondents were willing to give up on snapshots or the ability to run mixed workloads and one-fourth were willing to give up on deduplication or compression.

While vendor acceleration products are becoming more feature-rich, many of them are still not enterprise-ready in the eyes of the storage buyer.

Clearly, features and capabilities has become the third leg of the stool in most buyers' minds, joining performance and cost as the essentials of a storage acceleration product. In general, customers are not willing to give up or compromise on key features or capabilities just to address a performance issue.

The short list of features that customers are willing to do without tend to be capabilities they use only sporadically or not at all. This was the case in 2013 and it continues to be the case today. So while vendor acceleration products are becoming more feature-rich, many of them are still not enterprise-ready in the eyes of the storage buyer.

Flash still more expensive than HDDs

Finally, while NAND flash pricing has improved dramatically in the past two years, it is still relatively costly, making flash-based products expensive compared to those based on traditional hard drives. Unless a customer is facing a severe performance problem that impacts operations, they are not likely to pay a premium for an all-flash array. Sure, they might look at adding SSDs to an existing array or invest in a server-side product, but these approaches are typically focused on solving the problems of a particular app, rather than a broader set of performance issues. As a result, flash makes up less than 10% of total storage capacity in more than half of the enterprises surveyed.

Given the range of options in the market today, a storage acceleration product purchase should be a strategic decision, rather than a one-off tactical decision. In today's market, there is no need to compromise on enterprise features -- availability, snapshots, replication, deduplication, compression, scale out, independent scaling of performance or capacity, auto-tiering and so on. But most importantly, before you look for a product, understand why and where the storage performance problem lies and this will more likely lead you to pick the right hardware.

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