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Global hosting provider weighs SSD vs. HDD for high I/O applications

Hosting provider Ecommerce Inc. favors SSD versus HDD for high I/O databases, email servers and content management systems of online business customers.

Solid-state drives (SSDs) have helped Ecommerce Inc. address the most challenging I/O demands of customers that use its services to host their databases, email servers and content management systems.

The Columbus, Ohio-based global hosting provider uses Dell Inc.'s EqualLogic PS6010 and PS6110 storage arrays in solid-state-only mode, with a total of 56 SSDs and no hard disk drives (HDDs). Ecommerce also uses SSDs in Dell m610 blade servers, including one blade with a pair of SSDs for its internal corporate mail server.

In this podcast, Tim Perry, chief technology officer (CTO) at Ecommerce, discusses the decision-making process for selecting SSDs versus HDDs, the advantages of using solid-state technology in storage arrays and servers for select applications as well as his concerns about the cost of using SSDs. Perry is author of the book, "IT at the Fork in the Road: From Support to Service."

What was the impetus for your company to use solid-state drives?

It was really to provide more I/O for our database and email hosting environments. We host more than 400,000 web sites, and traditional SAS/SATA had been fine for those. But, as our customers are using more and more content management systems, and they're sending more and more email, we really needed to have a tool that would help us manage and boost up the I/O for database and email.

What factors do you take into consideration when you're weighing solid-state versus hard drives?

Initially -- and I don't want to be too tongue-in-cheek -- but basically, my question as a CTO was, 'Are you really sure you can't do this with SAS [drives]?' And, probably in the last year or so, this has been more of a [question of], 'Is SSD the best option?' 'Is it going to give us the best balance between what our customers need, what our system administrators need and what the transactions require?' SSD has started to prove itself as a tool for us, and it's no longer just a [question of], 'How can I avoid getting yet another technology in here?' Now, as a CTO, I'm starting to accept it more.

Can you tell us about the benefits you've seen from using solid-state storage?

We always try to stay focused on the customer experience and walk that fine line of value where we provide customers with a high level of experience, but we've also got to watch our bottom line. And this was one that became a very easy decision for us because we saw that our customers needed more and more I/O for some of these more intense applications, and our system administrators also wanted the ability to have another tool in the box so that they could bring it out and move certain functions into those higher I/O SANs. So, this was a little more manual than we might have wanted at first. We definitely got the uptick in the I/O that we wanted, and the customers have been very appreciative. They've noticed that times for their database transactions and even some of their email transactions have definitely been improved.

With which applications or types of applications do you tend to see the greatest advantage from using SSDs?

For us, other than just the generic database and email, content management systems which have been really growing for us in the last couple of years have a fairly high database transaction rate compared to our traditional Web hosting. So, those folks who are using different content management systems out there are really taxing some of the traditional SANs that we had, [and] they've definitely benefited from the SSDs.

What drove your decision to use solid-state storage in servers?

As I said, we started with using SSD SANs in our Web hosting environment, and really I was expecting that we would be buying only SAS and SATA going forward. However, our corporate mail server ran out of space. We've had a number of new hires here at Ecommerce, and the solution that someone came forward with was that we would buy two enterprise-class SSD drives, put it in a blade and then just use on-board RAID 1 mirroring for that. And, when we looked at the price of buying two enterprise-class SSDs, which was around $1,000 [or] $1,200, or buying four SAS drives plus a RAID card, that got us to more like $1,500, we decided that we would go ahead and take our experience with running the SANs with SSD and actually put them into a corporate mail server. And it is blazing. No one complains to me now about email.

What are your main concerns in using solid-state storage?

Its cost -- and not just the cost to go out and buy the initial drive. Really, I'm also concerned about additional costs like carrying the inventory for spare SSDs. We have dozens of SAS and SATA drives. We even have a few old IDE drives just in case, I guess. But, if we're going to carry two, three, four SSD drives, especially if they're going to be enterprise-class, that [scenario] gets to be pretty expensive. So, we have to rely on our vendors to get those drives to us quickly whenever we do have a failure. But, my biggest concern is cost -- not just the actual transaction cost but the ongoing inventory and also the cost of having additional technologies in my shop.

How would you rate the reliability of solid-state storage?

It was really better than I expected. I had one of our engineers check into all of this, and within the last year, the two SANs that are in full production with over 400,000 Web sites, we've had one drive failure -- I'm knocking on wood right now -- out of those two SANs. So, [with] a combination of 32 SSD drives, one [drive failure]. I've got a SATA array where I've had to replace 40 drives in the last year. So, so far, knocking on wood again, we've had very little problems with the two SSD SANs that we have currently in production and another one that we have coming online.

What's the most important piece of advice you would offer to other companies that are thinking about using solid-state storage?

The most important piece of advice about using SSD or really anything in technology is: Don't get married to the technology. Technology is only a tool for business. Database transactions are one thing, but I only care about that in terms of what my customers are trying to do, if they're trying to do more content management systems, if they're trying to do more credit card transactions. I care greatly about making sure that I have sufficient I/O for those needs. Just rolling out another technology because it's available, because it's cool, because it's new, is by and large a poor business decision. So, if you understand where you're currently having a challenge with customers, if you understand something that you could implement that would allow you new capabilities that your customers would value, that's [the time] when you want to look at the new technologies like SSD.

This was last published in September 2012

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