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the New Business Case for SSD ASAPs

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - December 6, 2011
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Need SSD Acceleration ASAP?
Say hello to SSD ASAPs

when I use this term it includes:-
  • auto-tiering SSD appliances
  • SSD cache - the automatic kind
  • SSD acceleration As Soon As Possible
  • Auto-tuning SSD Accelerated Pools of storage
  • combinations of the above

The idea is simple.

An SSD ASAP is something which you install between 2 storage systems which have vastly different latency and capacity.

The ASAP uses its own intelligence to figure out data hot spots - and tries to ensure - that as often as possible - the data which you want from the slower, bigger store - is accessible to your legacy apps software which still believes it's doing R/W to the slower store.

An SSD ASAP can take many physical form factors. It can be:- Why are ASAPs needed?

Business and economic realities:-
  • you need fast storage - because if your apps run slow - you fail to meet your data goals.
  • but - fastest storage costs a lot more than other types of storage. You can't afford to make all your storage the fastest kind.
  • fastest storage has lower capacity per rack height than bulk storage. It takes up too much space.
  • fastest storage uses more power than bulk storage. Using it for all your needs would lead to high running costs - and lower the reliability - because all that heat added up together could cook your data.
  • You can't afford to do this tuning manually. That's how it used to be done for decades - by hot spot tuning engineers. There are too few of them. They cost a lot to engage. And after they've left - your apps might change and you'd have to start all over again.
why are ASAPs a new market?

There have always been storage heirarchies in the data storage market - the old rotating types of storage - such as hard disks, optical drives, HDD RAID arrays and tape evolved with software and processors over many decades and so too did ways of dealing with them.

The new new economics of SSD storage took the CPU designers and OS software developers by surprise.

Instead of weaving in fast SSD support into computer architecture over a 10 year period - based on an incremental technology roadmap - the SSD market has gate-crashed the server party - and the SSD roadmaps are changing too fast for the old style computer vendors to keep up.

SSD ASAPs provide tactical solutions to solving storage problems today. Such as accelerating bulk storage which has HDDs inside.

But SSD ASAPs will always be needed in the future too - even when all storage is solid state - to interface between fast and slow SSD storage. They are 1 of the 7 enterprise SSD application market silos.

In the big picture model of SSDs - one way to view SSD ASAPs - is like SSD controllers - a special type of SSD intellectual property.

Some storage oems will design their own ASAP function - but most oems will leverage 3rd party products.

Is there any pattern emerging in this chaos?

Just as in the SSD controller market - you can divide architecture into big versus small - I think you can do something similar with ASAPs.

Who's doing what in the SSD ASAP world?

click here to see SSD ASAP news

the (original) business case for SSD ASAPs

published here - September 2009

SSD makers have been talking about auto tuning SSD acceleration tools and software for over 10 years. See autor-tiering news for recent details.

The lure of a multi billion dollar ASAPs market has been sucking new vendors in at the rate of more than 1 / month in the past 2 years. One or some of these new solutions might work. But which ones? And where do they work best?

Let's start by asking the question - Who needs ASAPs?
  • your live data is too big to fit entirely and economically into SSD.

    You like the idea - SSDs could make your apps go faster. Problem is you're not in an industry where you can stuff raw low latency and high IOPS in one end of your business sausage machine and expect to see increased revenue and dollars streaming out the other end. - (unlike financial traders and banks).
  • your SSD budget is too small to justify the expense of human tuning.

    (Even if your workplace is big - your department's server budget is small - so you're in the same bind as SMBs. The SSD tuning wizards can't afford to visit you. Even worse - you can see SSDs doing a great job in bigger apps in another cubicle.)
the business case for SSD ASAPs

StorageSearch.com invented the term "ASAPs" (in September 2009) to describe a new class of SSDs - which eliminate user waits for the SSD hot-shot - an engineer who traditionally tunes SSDs in storage networks to accelerate HDD based arrays by analyzing application data hot-spots and bottlenecks and logically relocating critical segments in high IOPs / low latency solid state disks.

The SSD ASAP acronym also works as a concept for users who want - SSD Acceleration As Soon As Possible.

The manual tuning process can take anything from 1/2 a day to several days - depending on the complexity of the environment. And because genuine SSD hot shots are rare - you may have to wait days or weeks before one of these gurus comes to visit you.

And if your budget isn't big enough? Too bad. Your low priority score with vanilla SSD vendors means that you may never get to see an SSD hot shot at all. In that case your only realistic enterprise SSD acceleration options are:-
  • placing ALL your data in solid state storage - which avoids the necessity for tuning - but is too pricey for most business situations
  • learning how to tune the SSD / HDD mix yourself
  • or buying an ASAP
Why Some Users Need ASAPs

In an article published in 2003 StorageSearch.com predicted that server SSDs had the potential to become a $10 billion / year market. I had used SSDs with multi-user servers in the 1980s - and I surprised myself (as well as many SSD vendors) when I extrapolated various readers and technology trends and saw how 4 factors would intersect to create the massive new market for SSD server acceleration whose growing pains we're witnessing today. Those were:-

1 - the relentless and ever growing need for application performance

2 - the declining growth rate in processor frequencies since the end of the 1990s due to the physical limits caused by signal skew on fat data busses as they came out of the chip. (You could more CPU cores in these chips - but you couldn't get faster signals out.)

3 - the declining cost of semiconductor memory

4 - the brick wall in hard disk latencies which hadn't altered a jot since the 1st 15K RPM hard drives started shipping in 2000. Most industry analysts never expected to see 20K RPM drives. Although shrinking magnetic geometries increased capacity and throughput - the random access times remained unchanged.
The point at which users would turn to SSDs to speed up their servers would be different in different markets - the user value proposition being the point where it's cheaper to add SSDs than add new servers, or impossible to get the same performance in any other way. These factors had been well known by a small number of SSD experts for many years - but while memory prices put SSDs out of reach - and while server oems could still sell fatter CPUs (with more cores) rather than faster CPUs (with better peak performance) these solutions remained the tools of last resort used by power users in the defense, intelligence, broadcast and financial markets. And another factor stopping the secret getting out was that customers who had got success in using these tools didn't want their competitors (or enemies) knowing how they'd done it.
Now of course the SSD server acceleration paradigm is common knowledge - helped to some degree - by marketing hype from the SSD notebook market. And it's reasonable for users to ask the question - "If SSDs can make our notebooks faster - why not our servers too?"

The answer is - "Yes they can - but it may still cost more than you can afford."

If your corporate data sits in 10TB, 100TB or multiple petabytes it's not economically feasible to place all your data in an SSD. That's one difference to the situation with notebooks. It's not just the cost of the memory - the cost of the SSD controllers rise astronomically as the speed goes up the levels needed to support servers apps too.

Tactically - what server owners have done since the dawn of the SSD server market is try to get as much acceleration as they can afford by using as little SSD capacity as possible.

Traditionally in RAID systems and SANs that process has meant analyzing the bottlenecks in server apps - where the most IOPS occur in the smallest identifiable part of the disk storage system. With some apps - like databases - whole books have been written on the subject. It's still a difficult and time consuming task - but if you can get hold of a good SSD hot shot and the right analysis tools - the data hot spots can be migrated to the fast SSD storage - and if you're lucky you can get 2x to 40x application speedups by logically replacing a small percentage of your disk bound data.

And that's where another economic factor comes in.

The supply of SSD hot shots - engineers who really understand SSD tuning issues - is limited. Most work for SSD vendors - and their time is best utilized by focusing on the biggest new customer prospects. If you work in a user organization where your SSD budget is less than a million dollars - it's unlikely you will get to meet one of these people (unless you are willing to be a beta site for a new product from a new company.)

So - for most of you - the options are:-
  • become your own SSD tuning expert (risky unless you work in an environment which encourages research and trial and error), or
  • get someone who's an inexperienced SSD expert to do the job for you. (Ask them how many SSD tune ups they did in 2005?), or
  • test a product which does some of the tuning process for you. This is the market niche for SSD ASAPs - which in my view is a very big market - because most small and medium sized organizations don't have million dollar SSD server budgets yet (December 2009) - even if their organization is already deploying millions of dollars worth of servers.
There are many flavors of "auto tuning" within the ASAP market space - and there will be more to come. Currently they are segmented by interface type. In the future there will be ASAPs which have been optimized for particular classes of application.

An important argument in favor of the SSDs ASAP type solution - is that unlike a human tuned system - the ASAP should maintain its initial effectiveness for longer - because it's always learning. Whereas in a traditionally tuned system it may be necessary from time to time to revisit the initial design assumptions if factors in the application environment change considerably.

Important Warning! No matter how fast the SSD in the ASAP - you will only get an economic speed up if the assumptions about data use (designed into the box) correlate well with the actual frequency and shape of the data usage patterns in your application. If that's not the case - then shuffling data into a fast cache at a time when that particular data is not the bottleneck - is simply an expensive way to achieve nothing at all. This is something which you only learn by trial and error, and experience in modeling. And another lesson I learned for myself in 1990 (which is still true today) is that for some applications and some data sets - the bottleneck is not the disk system but something else! And adding an SSD in these circumstances achieves no speedup at all - even if all the data is sitting on the SSD.

To summarize this important point - adding an SSD does not make the application faster - if the data in the SSD is the wrong data (at that time) or if the old hard disk system wasn't the bottleneck in the first place.

I'm an evangelist for using SSDs in the right places for the right reasons when they are economic. They have many advantages. But like any tool - you have to know when its use is appropriate.

I just wanted to get that out of the way. It's an important sanity check. Now let's assume that you might have an application which might speedup economically using SSDs. You're trying to investigate this subject in more detail and will do testing on whatever you shortlist on a try before you buy basis (which the SSD industry started to adopt more widely after seeing results from our 2004 SSD buyer survey).

Deciding if you are an ideal user who should be looking at the SSD ASAP market (or not) sounds like a complicated process. But I think there are some simple filtering questions you can ask yourself - shown in the table below - which might be helpful.
What type of SSD server acceleration tuning should I be looking at?

Which of the these best describes your application?
thousands of servers
homogene ous environment
Google style architecture. All servers have about the same weight and run the same or very similar apps.
Congratulations! Your budget is big enough to attract an SSD hot shot.

They will probably steer you to embedded SSDs (either PCIe SSDs or 2.5" SSDs integrated in each server rack.
thousands of servers
heterogeneous environment
Command and control style architecture. Some servers are heavy weight, others are light weight. They interact at many points in many complex ways.
Congratulations! Your budget is big enough to attract an SSD hot shot.

If your low end servers are bottlenecks - those may benefit from embedded SSDs (like above).

But that also places more IOPS stress upstream - where the only solutions may be SAN (or Infiniband) compatible RAM SSDs. In addition to the embedded SSDs downstream.
tens to hundreds of servers
any environment
any architecture.
This is a gray area where you may or may not attract an SSD hot shot.

At the top end of this range you will most likely benefit from some kind of human adjusted tuning - because ASAPs are an expensive option when scaled up (compared to the alternatives.)

At the bottom end of this range using ASAPs (if they work for your type of application) may be worth testing - because the cost of analyzing and tuning your system using a human SSD expert may outweigh the theoretical cost differences between an ASAP and a dumb vanilla SSD.
1 to 10 servers
any environment
any architecture.
It's almost certain you won't attract an SSD hot shot. (Unless you want to be a beta site.)

The good news is - there are many possible different ways in which you could use SSDs (inside the box, outside the box etc). The bad news is there are so many possible solutions which might work too.

The entry level price for some types of ASAP may be the determining factor which rules them in our out. Performance scalability is not an important issue for this low server count. Total disk capacity may be.

You may have to become your own SSD hot shot expert.
In the current state of the market (September 2009) - with only a handful of vendors offering genuine SSDs ASAP products - there is a limited range of choices for users who have any particular interface preference. But I expect this to change in the next few years as the scale of the market opportunity becomes better understood. This will be driven by the growing gap between trained SSD hot shots and demand for SSD acceleration.
more SSD articles and directories

SSD news
SSD history
the fastest SSDs
Tuning SANs with SSDs
Aspects of 3rd Party Caching
sugaring MLC for the enterprise
how fast can your SSD run backwards?
the Problem with Write IOPS - in flash SSDs
Can you trust flash SSD specs & benchmarks?
Where to put your flash SSD accelerators - for best results (pdf)

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"In May 2003 -Imperial Technology launched the world's first SSD tuning software tool called - WhatsHot SSD - which analyzed real-time file usage on the SAN to identify hot-files to place in SSD."
...from:- SSD Market History
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how big will this market be?
Auto-tiering / SSD ASAPs will become a multi-billion dollar segment in the storage market.

But although they started in the mixed environment of SSDs and HDDs - ASAPs will still be needed when all enterprise storage is solid state - due to the wide spectrum of price, capacity and performance of SSDs that will be available in the enterprise.
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XcelaSAN is a "revolutionary" self optimizing
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from Dataram
Nowadays there are many companies in the auto-caching enterprise SSD market. But the first systems product was the XcelaSAN - launched in September 2009 - which was advertised here on StorageSearch.com
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who sells (or has sold) SSD ASAPs?
Over 30 companies now market SSD ASAP appliances or technology including:-

Adaptec, Alacritech, Atlantis Computing, Avere Systems, Coho Data, Compellent, DataCore, Dataram, Dell, Drobo, EMC, Enmotus, FlashSoft, Fusion-io, GreenBytes, GridIron Systems, HGST, HP (3PAR), IceWEB, Infortrend, Intel, IO Turbine, LSI, Marvell , Network Appliance, Nexenta Systems, NexGen, NEVEX Virtual Technologies, Nimble Storage, Nutanix, NVELO, OCZ, PernixData, PMC-Sierra, Proximal Data, SANRAD, Tegile Systems, VeloBit, XIO...

And there will be hundreds more soon due to the attractiveness of the SSD goldrush and the ease of licensing or acquiring related technologies.
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"In all SSD caches and even more so in auto tiering / SSD ASAPs the age or longevity working with the data set has a big impact on performance."
how fast can your SSD run backwards?
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"The SSD platform represents a bigger market opportunity in the next 5 years than any other type of enterprise software. The winners in SSD software could be as important for infrastructure as Microsoft was for PCs, or Oracle was for databases, or Google was for search."
get ready for a world in which all enterprise data touches SSDs
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"The designers of flash tiered systems will say that they literally spent hours analyzing real customer data, getting a sense for access patterns and performance. I dont know about you, but this strikes me as being very complex. How do we know that they have it right or that the data theyve profiled matches my world, which may include diverse data and I/O patterns?"
...from:- We at Alacritech think that its possible to achieve the benefits of tiered storage without actually having tiered storage and the associated complexities and costs.
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"...Cached RAID solutions are starting to run out of gas in high-performance, transaction-intensive applications: while the performance demands on e-business infrastructures are being driven to new levels by exploding demand, unpredictable peak loads, and an increasingly impatient population of on-line customers. It's time for another architectural innovation."
Michael Casey, Solid Data Systems (November 2000) - in his article - Solid State File-Caching for Performance and Scalability
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"SSD caching is most effective with cache-friendly workloads.... On the other hand, some workloads are not very cache friendly and do not show significant performance gains..."
...from:- page 30 - Demartek SSD Deployment Guide (pdf) (April 2012)
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7 SSD types will satisfy all future enterprise needs
The enterprise SSD market is complicated enough already but despite that - only 7 distinct types of SSD classes are all that are needed to sustainably satisfy all the architecture needs in the pure solid state storage data center - one of which is SSD ASAPs.
SSD silos article If you're an enterprise SSD user - you can use these classifications to judge where all the current SSDs in your shortlist today fit within the scope of your (maybe as yet unclear) future SSD architecture. ...read the article
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let's fix this aspect of SSD jargon ASAP
Editor:- July 2, 2012 - 3 years ago I started using the term "SSD ASAP" as a moniker for lumping together a whole load of related SSD appliance and software products - which included auto caching, acceleration, auto-tiering etc. When I use this term it includes:-
  • auto-tiering SSD appliances
  • SSD cache - the automatic kind
  • SSD acceleration As Soon As Possible
  • Auto-tuning SSD Accelerated Pools of storage
  • combinations of the above
I know that many people in the industry are happy with my SSD ASAPs usage. But despite that - it hasn't been widely adopted yet.

Part of the reason may be that SSD vendors always prefer to create the illusion that they are doing something which is uniquely different to everyone else. And if they refer to their products as "SSD ASAPs" on their own web sites - it makes it easier for you to locate possible competitors.

If you're serious about that type of product - you're going to do the research anyway - even if 30 different companies call it by 30 different names.

Maybe Twitter might be a way to reach some sort of consensus over the labels for this thing.

Another part of my reasoning for not wanting to create artificially separate categories for SSD caching, and tiering and other hot spot optimization techniques is that in the long term it won't matter what techniques (or mixture of techniques) vendors use as long as they work effectively when they sit between 2 different speeds of installed SSD storage. So in the future - calling this type of function an SSD cache or tiering appliance wouldn't be strictly accurate anyway.
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recent SSD articles
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2.5" PCIe SSDs - How will the new concept impact existing markets?

MLC flash lives longer in my SSD care program - the new fad in selling flash SSDs... rival claims about life assurance and health care

if Fusion-io sells more does that mean Violin will sell less? - my analysis of the complex market interchange between the PCIe SSD and FC SAN SSD and IP SSD markets.

will the enterprise SSD market be big enough for all these companies [list] to grow? - I'm often asked that question - although everyone who asks it populates the [list] with their own set of SSD companies.

StorageSearch talks SSD with Holly Frost, CEO, Texas Memory Systems - I admit I was nervous in the run up to doing this. It felt like I would be talking to SSD royalty. Holly Frost has been designing big memory storage systems longer than anyone else on the planet. But he's not bored with SSDs yet. He said he can't imagine working in any other industry.

Can you tell me the best way to SSD Street? - I'm like the Old Woman of the SSD Village who talks to everyone that passes through. No wonder I have a unique perspective. It would be strange if I didn't.
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"a flash-based write buffer needs to be even more reliable than an NVRAM-based buffer, because it is larger and the overwrite-absorption and re-sorting might make it difficult to recover the system to a consistent state upon loss.) On the other hand, a read cache does not ever store the only copy of any data, so it can be constructed inexpensively without sacrificing reliability..."
Umesh Maheshwari, Co-Founder and CTO, Nimble Storage in his blog - Write Caching in Flash: A Dubious Distinction (January 12th, 2012)
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sugaring MLC for the enterprise
When flash SSDs started to be used as enterprise server accelerators in 2004 - competing RAM SSD makers said flash wasn't reliable enough.

RAM SSDs had been used for server speedups since 1976 - and in 2004 they owned the enterprise market. (Before 2004 - flash SSDs weren't fast enough and had mostly been used as rugged storage in the military and industrial markets - and in space constrained civilian products such as smartphones.)

By 2007 it was clear that the endurance of SLC flash was more than good enough to survive in high IOPS server caches. And in the ensuing years the debate about enterprise flash SSDs shifted to MLC - because when systems integrators put early cheap consumer grade SSDs into arrays - guess what happened? They burned out within a few months - exactly as predicted.

Since 2009 new controller technologies and the combined market experience of enterprise MLC pioneers like Fusion-io and SandForce have demonstrated that with the right management - MLC can survive in most (but still not all) fast SSDs.

Now as we head into 1X nanometer flash generations new technical challenges are arising and MLC SSD makers disagree about which is the best way to implement enterprise MLC SSDs.

Which type of so called "enterprise MLC" is best? Can you believe the contradictory marketing claims? Can you even understand the arguments? (Probably not.)

And that's why marketing is going to play a bigger part in the next round of enterprise SSD wars as SSD companies wave their wands and reveal more about the magic inside their SSD engines to audiences who don't really understand half of what they're being told.
click to read article Unlike the Cola Wars - you can't take the risk of a bad enterprise MLC SSD taste test. ...read the article
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an SSD ASAP video
click to watch the video
The special effects budget was not overspent on the creation of this video - which is about various differing views about the SSD ASAPs market.

But what this video lacks in production values - it more than makes up for in terms of conceptual content.

It's nearly an hour long. That's like 2 episodes of the Big Bang or a whole episode of Galactica. Is it really worth it?

I skipped the boring bits at the beginning - but then I went back later to see who starred in it.

Is SSD simply a big cache or a real storage tier? - was moderated by Chris Evans, editor of the Storage Architect.

Participating in this discussion were representatives from EMC, STEC, Nimble Storage, Velobit, SolidFire and Virident.

The discussion ranged from - where's the best place to put SSDs? and which agency should determine where to put the hot data? The app or the storage system?

Then we get into - is this flash demarcation going to work as short term tactical or long term strategic? And what's the best choice for your career if you're worried it might not work as well as advertised?

The video was posted in April 2012 - but I only saw it in the 2nd week of June.

Everyone we hear speak is smart and knows about SSDs and acceleration.

But this is one of those examples of the SSD Heresies in which - after a while you realize that you are on one side or the other. ...click to watch video
See also:- my shortlist of classic SSD videos.
click to see classic SSD videos
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"Across the whole enterprise - a single petabyte of SSD with new software could replace 10 to 50 petabytes of raw legacy HDD storage and still enable all the apps to run much faster while being hosted on a shrunken population of SSD enhanced servers."
the enterprise SSD software event horizon