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playing the enterprise SSD box riddle game

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - June 6, 2013
If you've seen or read - The Hobbit - then you'll be familiar with the concept of the riddle game.

Something similar is playing out now in the enterprise flash array market.

The setting? I forgot to mention this.

The hero - a mythical hobbit-like creature called "User" is trapped in a high gravity well / force-field - just outside the entrance to a cave in which are stored great treasures. The force-field - which prevents User entering - is the legacy from an earlier age of steam-punk computing - whose origins no-one is able to remember. The legends say that if User can answer 3 questions correctly from a wizard who appears at the mouth of the cave - User can get in, grab the treasure and move on up to a higher plane of existence. Each time User answers correctly - he can take a step forward.

The rules? There are almost no rules in the "SSD rackmount riddle game" - but if there were - they might be something like this.

Before asking each question the wizard grabs a very plain looking smooth black metal box - and disappears from sight into the back of the cave where he carefully picks some mushrooms and then stoops to collect some special little crystalline rocks from a corner - all of which he tosses into the box before sealing the lid and shaking it all up. (User can sometimes hear the rattling while he's doing it. This adds to the nervous tension). After some more rattling and sometimes a mysterious clang - the wizard adds a magic spell to bind it all together and reappears back at the mouth of the cave to ask User the next question.

The SSD riddle game has been running for a long time. Each time User gives the wrong answers - he has to wait another year for the wizard to appear - and then restart the 3 questions again from the beginning. But on the plus side (and this is what makes the game playable) User is alloweed to remember earlier answers.

The 1st question is... What is the box?

The 2nd questions is... What does it do?

And the 3rd question is... What will my next box look like?

Now a lot of Users have been successful answering the 1st question. The answer - in case you haven't already guessed is... It's an SSD rack.

But only a small number of Users have got as far as guessing the answer to the 2nd question .. What does it do? That's because the wizard gets bored and changes what he puts in the box. And sometimes he time-shares this part of the game with another wizard. And User can't easily tell these wizards apart.

A few Users have accidentally guessed what sounded like the right answer to question #2 - by either asking the wizard if he could speed things up a bit? - Or saying - Time. Give me more time.

But the enigmatic wizard doesn't want to make this game too easy. And so for reasons known best to himself each time he goes back to the cave is - he picks up a different assortment of chips and mushrooms to put in the box. And just to be on the safe side - before he shakes it all - he casts a different binding spell.

You won't be surprised to learn that almost no-one has ever been able to guess the correct answer to question #3 - what will my next box look like?

I've touched before on the growing complexities of technical segmentation in the enterprise SSD market - and User concerns about roadmap scalability.

For many enterprise Users - the question - can you guess what will my next SSD box will look like? - bears a striking resemblance to the unfairness of Gollum - when he says - what has it got in its pocketses - Precious?

When Users play the riddle game with enterprise SSD vendors - it's difficult enough to win the game when the SSD wizard plays fair and emerges from the cave with just one box and offers some helpful clues. But in real life - there are many identical looking wizards emerging from the same cave - and often they're carrying more than one box.

So it was refreshing earlier this week talking to Max Riggsbee, VP of Product Management and CMO Whiptail about the thinking behind their vision and roadmap for their rackmount SSD product business.

The company recently announced details related to 2 different products.
  • A new entry level ($20K floor price) fast-enough 1U iSCSI SSD - which is aimed at the branch office environment. The WT-1100 is a 1U 100K IOPS system with upto 4TB capacity which will ship in the next quarter. Internally it uses enterprise SSDs from SanDisk.
  • Clarification of the roadmap and a July shipping date for Whiptail's previously announced highest- end controller architecture which the company calls INFINITY - which uses InfiniBand as the fabric to interconnect clumps of storage racks. This will provide low latency - even when the installed storage is scaled up to the current maximum group size of 6 INVICTA arrays in a 360TB, 4 million IOPS, 40GB/s configuration.
Max Riggsbee told me that Whiptail realized it needed a different business model to efficiently meet all the different types of needs for networked SSD storage which it was seeing from customers. And this couldn't be done with a single product or a single route to market. However, all of Whiptail's racks share the same back-end software and true enterprise reliability features.

The entry level model - the WT-1100 - will be sold by channel partners. The idea is that a branch office or small enterprise doesn't have to sacrifice enterprise grade SSD reliability just because it only needs a smaller capacity system. To simplify the setup for integrators and resellers - these systems are supported by an installation wizard. (The good kind.)

For application silos which need higher performance and more SSD capacity (the traditional FC SAN market) the entry level route to access Whiptail's systems will still be the INVICTA range. If customers need to expand their fast SSD capacity - they can scale up to a 30 node configuration which protects their storage investment and which is managed by the same unified software.

Going back to my introduction... And the mythical User who is growing increasingly frustrated - because he genuinely wants to escape from his predicament and move on up to the next plane of existence.

What do we think User wants?

It's important for SSD rackmount vendors to make their products easy to recognize (question #1), to be easily comprehensible (question #2) and for future directions from suppliers to be easy to anticipate (question #3).

Whiptail's marketing strategy can be interpreted in this way.

If User only cares about iSCSI - the answer to questions 1 and 2 are easy. - It's an iSCSI SSD box. And you buy it from the same kind of people you buy your other iSCSI stuff from. If you ever need more complicated stuff - Whiptail does that too. But you don't have to get into those other mysteries unless you really want to. As to question 3 - what will the next entry level box look like? (A clue here is that SanDisk is an investor in Whiptail - and these new systems use SanDisk enterprise SSDs.) So an easy answer to question #3 is - future boxes will get more competitively priced.

If User's preoccupations are high end SAN compatible SSD storage - however - User easily knows enough to guess #1 and #2. As to question #3 - it will probably still have Infiniband as its internal fabric. Whiptail's systems currently 40Gbps IB. An there's a whole industry with a vested interest in keeping IB scalable and fast - so that should be a safe choice for several more years.

(IB isn't the only choice for clustering scalable SSD racks - PCIe may be an alternative competitor - but we don't have to worry about that in this context.)

Max Riggsbee told me - that even if Whiptail changes the internal flash makeup in their storage nodes (as they have already done a few times before) their software and the IB fabric means means their INFINITY systems should be able to accomodate future nodes.

This means if User is trying to guess what the next high-end box from Whiptail looks like - a reasonable guess is - it will be compatible, scale upwards in capacity, performance, and competitiveness and still work with the same kind of software - even if the rocks and mushrooms inside are different to what User has seen before.
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