Astute, a San Diego-based storage appliance company, are launching an all-flash data storage appliance for mid-size companies. Surely there’s nothing new about flash storage — my friend has an SSD in his PC. What’s so momentous about the ViSX appliance?

What is a data storage appliance?

A storage appliance is a rack-mount box stuffed with disks, high speed network interfaces and performance-enhancing extras (yes, it’s a physical thing, and nothing to do with virtual appliances).

The care and feeding of a rack of equipment has changed. Twenty years ago a 19″ equipment rack in a computer room was full of physical servers, each with a few disk bays. Ten years ago it was full of blades, with a chunk of SAN added for the big files. Now the rack is loaded with buckets of resources — huge amounts of CPU, memory and storage. A virtualization manager like VMware Virtual Center, Microsoft Hyper-V, or Citrix XenServer chops up and parcels out resources as a thousand virtual servers.

How do you shovel in a huge amount of storage space into a rack? By bolting in a ViSX storage appliance. You buy it, plumb it into the rack, and use a plug-in to put it under VMware’s control. You don’t touch your existing VMware servers or upgrade your SAN array.

Storage appliance alternatives

Do you have to buy an appliance? Is it worth swapping those old spinning disks in your customer-serving machines for new SSDs? The performance boost could slim down the response time for a thousand clients. Well, maybe. It can be awkward and expensive to add storage like this. Dropping physical production machines out of service, transferring data and upgrading drivers takes time, planning, and expert labour.

What about your SAN (Storage Area Network)? Is it worth adding a bunch of SSDs to the existing spinning disks? Well, maybe. The SAN may not been designed to cope with the high performance of SSDs so you may get the drawback of the price tag without the benefit of the speed.

IOPS in a flash

The benefit of flash disks has touched everyone. If you try explaining IoT (Internet of Things) to your friend, you may have to include phrases like “actually, it is important” and “no, wait, come back”. Try explaining SSDs (Solid State Drives) to that person and you may find they already own one.

A friend of mine recently upgraded his home PC storage from a mechanical spinning HDD (Hard Disk Drive) to an SSD (Solid State Drive), stuffed full of Samsung flash memory. He’d put off the purchase because SSD capacity is so much more expensive than HDD capacity. He migrated his data, swapped the disks, booted up the machine and waited. Not for very long, as it happens — time from boot to desktop was cut from minutes to seconds. SSDs are ten times faster than spinning disks.

Astute reckon about 90-95% of a mid-range company’s storage requirements don’t need the speed that high-performance flash offers. The Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint, and File server work don’t need to go that fast. The other 5-10% — the database applications such as SQL Server and Oracle and VDI usage — is where the benefit is really felt.

The measurement for read/write performance is IOPS (Input/Output operations  Per Second). In a typical working day a VDI user needs about 100 IOPS, and a spinning disk copes with about 200 IOPS.

A typical mid-market array of 10 spinning disks provides about 2,000 IOPS. 100 VDI users need 10,000 IOPS. It’s too heavy a load for this array of mechanical disks to cope with. If a company has 200 VDI users or more, spinning disks can’t cope at all. An array of 6 SSDs can handle 140,000 IOPS – orders of magnitude larger.

Flash the cash

My friend’s SSD spend of a couple hundred bucks is a token of the exploding flash memory market. IDC expects the flash market to be worth $1.2bn in 2015, a figure which is attracting the attention — and the investment — of the biggest industry players.

Astute are not another IBM, so they have to pick their battles — they must be the best for one segment of the market. Astute target the mid-size players, companies with turnovers above $100m. The middle tier customers — the higher education establishments, local government offices, and manufacturing facilities — will be able to afford Astute’s super-fast all-flash storage devices.

An entry-level Astute ViSX 1.6TB appliance costs $32,000. At this lower end, it’s high performance but it’s expensive. More modules can be added to a 45TB limit. Astute include inline de-duplication hardware that increases the effective limit to over 200TB, which makes the price fall to under $2 per gigabyte – about on a par with enterprise-level spinning disk prices. It’s comparatively cheap, in a high capacity price-per-GB kind of way.

Network data transfer

Everyone has been stuck in a data transfer bottleneck at some point. When the little disk light on your laptop starts flashing in an excited fashion, you know you are in for a frustratingly slow session. And that’s a disk on the end of a high speed local bus. Network transfer is slow compared to spinning disk transfer, and spinning disks are slow compared to flash. The company that makes networked disk storage go faster is onto a winner.

Another ingredient in Astute’s secret sauce is the DataPump Engine. The DataPump Engine makes sure network processing overhead does not affect performance. The CPU-intensive work of dealing with TCP and iSCSI networking is offloaded to the DataPump Engine ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) to dramatically speed up application performance.

Spinning disk disruption

SSD drives are installed in high-end laptops and SSD storage appliances are installed in large company networks, but there hasn’t been much for mid-range customers. That’s about to change; SSD appliances are ready to filter down from the top tier players to the middle tier. It will no longer be just the giant banks with huge budgets and the fibre channel networks who can install this type of storage appliance.

Astute want to win more mid-range clients with their new ViSX storage appliances. They use SSDs, de-duplication, and the DataPump Engine to offer high performance at a low price-per-GB. This combination wasn’t possible before. It’s a new disruption in the old area of storage.