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"You may decide that my ratios are too timid"

I said to Skyera's CEO - Rado Danilak

"if so - scare us!"

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - October 22, 2013

As I discussed in an earlier blog - the rackmount SSD market is an exciting hot spot for developments right now.

(I'm not talking here about IPOs, investments and acquisitions - although they're exciting enough for stakeholders in the hot seats or those hoping to hold the hot tickets - but I'm talking here about real technical stuff.)

Rackmount SSD enhanced storage is exciting today because there are now things you can do with software and hardware architecture at the complete storage array level - which are outside and beyond the reach and ken of the cleverest controllers within any individual SSD drive.

I hinted at the consequences we can expect to see when you factor in all the architecture and software changes which I know are in the pipe (both within server-side and SAN SSD storage) in my new SSD software event horizon blog. (Perhaps an alternative title might have included the phrase "inflexion-point" - but anyway it's out there.) I've had some good reactions to that article from people inside the industry - although like many of these articles it may be a year or so before these factors are shaking the SSD market so much that the concepts become widely known.

But I was curious to get the reaction of one particular company - which for several reasons which I've described before - seems to me to be at the leading edge of more of these technology trends at the same time in a single product line than any other single company (which is not in stealth mode). So I set up a meeting with Skyera.

You probably know who they are - because they were one of the very few companies in SSD market history which in the same quarter as they emerged from stealth mode also made it into the Top SSD Companies List. That was back in Q2 2012.

In my email last week to the founder and CEO Rado Danilak I talked about my event-horizon article and invited him to talk to me about these concepts. This is a cut and paste of what I said....

My key point is that with modern designs and new architecture and new software - it doesn't take a petabyte of SSD to replace a legacy petabyte of HDD at the enterprise or cloud level.

The kind of ratio which can be achieved in the next few years is very much higher. So high - in fact - when you take into account the possibility of apps and operating systems which will be rewritten for SSD - that people had better get used to the idea. That's it really.

Obviously the ratio of what is do-able now will improve - as the SSD software ecosystem gets more confidence.

You may decide that my ratios are too timid. If so - scare us.

And that's what led to an hour of me talking about the enterprise flash storage market to both Rado Danilak (CEO) and Tony Barbagallo (VP Marketing) at Skyera.

Early in the conversation I said that I and many competitors in the market I've discussed this with - regard Skyera as being the company to beat in terms of cost per terabyte of rackmount SSD on the SAN - above a floor capacity level - and within some defined compatibility segments.

But I also know that due to the cautious nature of the enterprise market - and with Skyera being a new company with new technology - I wouldn't expect them to get much real business traction within their ideal customer group - until after the obligatory 2 years waiting period on hardware reliability and software stability which faces all newcomers to the enterprise.

"Even if you had all your perfectly baked enterprise SSD cake - with all the software trimmings which are still a year or so in the future - available right now in your restaurant and offered it to these people at that futuristically low price today - they wouldn't want to taste it" - I said. "They don't want to risk being poisoned by Rado's crappy flash SSD juice. They prefer other people to experiment with the new e-SSD chef in town. You just have to live with that. In another few years these same cautious types may be saying to everyone they know - don't you just love dining at Skyera?"

One of the difficulties is that people don't really understand enough to appreciate what Skyera has got and is offering. It looks to me - I said - that you could thrash around with blogs and interviews which skirt around these design issues - but most people still won't get it. Others - the most experienced SSD users would understand. They're the ones who matter. (But understanding what you do and being interested isn't the same as buying the product in huge numbers yet. (Although some dark matter users might.)

That got me onto the idea of suggesting a new channel partners program for the upcoming skyEagle (which gives you a petabyte of SSD in 2U) to educate the market about the positioning of this efficiently designed flash array. My suggestions were along the lines...
  • Wrap it in a bigger box.
  • Add bricks to make it heavy.
  • Add a heater to make it run warmer.
  • Double the price to make it more acceptable.
Tony liked the idea - and I said he could use it in future ads or communications if he thought it would work. (If you work at another SSD company and want me to suggest a better way to explain what you do - your know where to find me.)

We got pretty quickly into - how complicated it is for people to understand what's really important in the enterprise SSD market.

I've been in the enterprise market for a long time and my experience goes something like this....

Every year I learn 2 new important new ideas about SSDs.

But every year I also have to remember to forget or discard 1 old idea which was vital to know before – because it's no longer useful, valid or true.

"What made you go into the enterprise market?" - I asked. This was particularly aimed at Rado - whose previous products have been used wherever SSDs are used - but which wasn't particularly focused on enterprise systems.

Rado said - "I had the benefit of the brick wall of ignorance. Not knowing what couldn't be done."

He went on to say how once he decided to optimize around the flash, that meant throwing way conventional interfaces, that mean he needed more software to tie it all together.

As I've previously elaborated in my article on big SSD controller architecture - there are optimizations you can do when you have access to a bigger arrays of flash - which are impossible when you're trying to optimize around the single drive level - or arrays of drives level.

Rado said he had an initial list of efficiencies which he thought he might be able to do - but he said the more you work with large amounts of flash in a system the more you understand - and he's now in a position where he and his team will revisit older assumptions they had - which gives them the ability to expand their efficiencies by impressive multiples - even taking where they already are the starting point.

Rado told me that the really impressive efficiency numbers (in flash utilization) which are being worked on - are all in the software. (That's similar to what other array vendors have said too.)

Rado said that in Skyera - it's already the case that 3/4 of the engineers are working on software - and Skyera is hiring more software people - so that ratio will grow.

Rado asked me about the raw assumptions I had used in doing the scaling and efficiency projections in my article. Mostly I said - they had come from earlier articles (and I sent him the links) but collectively the calculation of what I thought was do-able was simply based on combining all the different bits of IP that SSD companies tell me about - churning them through some simple architecture sanity tests - and then applying some discounts and backtracking for the things which might not work as well as had been originally anticipated.

I said (in a later follow up) that whatever crazy numbers I come up with in some long range SSD forecasting article - the market usually beats that number by 1 or 2 years - or by a factor of x2 - due to something innovative being done which was previously unknown or thought to be impossible. (I may add the detailed assumptions for readers as an appendix later.)

Unlike the designers and software developers who have to make these all these impossible things work - all I have to do is steal the top level idea of what they're doing, assume it does work and then model what effect that has on a complete SSD installation. Because the sum of the parts includes the app servers - and SSD ecosystem-aware software. It's about more than just scaling up efficiencies in the storage arrays. The results are impressive.

We spoke about segmentation within the enterprise and why the old fashioned ways of describing customers, products and apps use cases don't provide adequate models in the SSD case.

In the SSD context it's frequently the case that different customers in the same market, or the same customer within different parts of their own organization - will choose solutions which appear paradoxically different at the raw technology level - simply because some products are a better match for their requirements for compatibility or ease of managing risk and roadmaps at that point in time.

The same customer - with 5 years more experience of using SSDs under their belt may start new projects with a completely different approach to how they want to see things moving along - and the level of incrementation they prefer to work with - at the upgrade or fault replacement level. No single product can satisfy all these conflicting needs.

I wondered if I should quote more of what Rado said in this report about the kind of improvements he says are still to come in his own company's roadmap.

But I said I think it would be best for me to hold off for now.

Skyera (and the enterprise SSD industry) need to do a better job of explaining the consequences of some of the remarkable things they've already done (or can do) with their new systems. When that "do-able now" is firmly grasped - then the "do-able next thing" will seem even more impressive (or scary).

I promise you will get more updates on this topic soon.

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