Sticking With Disks In An Increasingly All-Flash World

The growing number of and installations for all-flash storage arrays is hard to ignore. Enterprises are trying to corral the huge amounts of unstructured data that is generated in this era of cloud, mobility, and the Internet of Things. Because of advancements on many fronts – the NVM-Express protocol and its fabrics extension come to mine – all-flash storage can rival disk-based systems on cost while providing more performance, lower power consumption, and similar scalability.

Established storage vendors like Dell EMC, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and NetApp are rapidly building out their flash storage portfolios while pure-play companies like Pure Storage are gaining momentum. That said, not all storage vendors are embracing the move to all-flash arrays. Infinidat, a nine-year-old company with headquarters in both Waltham, Massachusetts and Herzliya, Israel sees disk as still the best storage option for enterprises that need to scale up into the petabyte and – soon – exabyte levels while keeping costs in check.

And customers are following its lead. US Signal, a datacenter services provider with seven facilities around the Midwest and another set to open in Detroit March 1, has been using Infinidat’s InfiniBox enterprise storage systems in all of it datacenters since 2015, citing such benefits as the cost-per-terabyte, performance, intelligent caching and density.

“As the cloud continues to grow, cost compression and just competition continue to drive price down,” Derrin Rummelt, US Signal’s executive director of engineering, tells The Next Platform. “Sometimes people buy smaller storage or download things to different stores in the event of a disaster, moving from one storage to another and we just use Infinidat for all of it. It’s a lot easier to just have it ready to go in the event any of our disaster recovery customers need to fail over and it’s already running on that disk, it doesn’t have to do anything. It’s already obvious that that’s where the data is being replicated, too. So we’re using it for production, hosting or using it for disaster recovery targets, using it for backup targets. There’s a lot of different things that we’re leveraging the Infinidat platform for.”

Infinidat And InfiniBox

The company promotes the 42U InfiniBox as an enterprise storage system for enterprises and managed service providers with better performance than all-flash, capacity that can handle hyperscale workloads, unlimited snapshots, synchronous and asynchronous replication and guarantees around data security and reliability. InfiniBox comes in three models – the F2300, F4300 and F6300 – that range in effective capacity from 375 TB in the F2300 to 10 PB in the F6300, in memory from 1.1 TB to more than 3 TB and flash cache from 92 TB to 368 TB. IOPs range from 980,000 to 2 million and from 14 GB/sec to 25 GB/sec throughput. They offer Fibre Channel and Ethernet ports, integrations with such vendors as VMware, OpenStack, CommVault, Microsoft, SAP, and Veeam, and power consumption between 3.6 kW and 8 kW. The company boasts about a 10:1 consolidation capability that drives down both floor tiles and network port costs.

Each system also includes a machine learning algorithm called Neural Cache that keeps a connected history of every data section on the system and uses visibility into network traffic to the InfiniBox to find patterns in data access and predict future I/O requests, which are then staged in cache for faster responses. Neural Cache also delivers sub-millisecond access across multi-petabyte data sets. InfiniVerse is a cloud-based storage management and monitoring solution that includes system telemetry and predictive analytics to drive insights that can lead to quick business decisions.

InfiniVerse was one of several products Infinidat talked about in May 2019 as part of its “scale to win” strategy for multi-petabyte datacenters. Another was InfiniBox FLX, a managed offering that offers such cloud-like features as a subscription model and the ability to immediately scale up as needed.

US Signal Signs On

The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company adopted Infinidat after using storage systems first from pre-split Hewlett-Packard (3Par) and then pre-Dell acquisition EMC (VMAX3). In both instances, US Signal ran into issues as the business and the number of datacenters grew, according to Rummelt.

“As the environment started to grow, we quickly ran into issues with 3Par where we found a capacity before we ran out of IOPs, or the other way around,” he says. “It’s a very tough spot because if you run out of capacity before you’re out of IOPs, you’ve got more cycles but you don’t have the capacity itself. You have to buy more disk, furthering that down the line and that becomes kind of a trap. But conversely, if you’re on the other side of that, you run out of IOPs before you run out of capacity and that situation is almost worse to be in because then you don’t have the revenue to try to help offset some of that. With that platform as well, they would do some hot-data type tiering, but it would only happen once a day. That just didn’t fit the dynamic workloads much like others, someone like Infinidat does today. That’s what we started off with and then as the years went on, those 3Pars made their way out of the platform and we ended up rolling out EMC VMAX3s.”

The EMC systems had more power, but US Signal found itself in the same augment cycle as with HPE with VMAX3s that resulted in a lot of data tiering and management difficulties that led to a lot of work by the engineering staff, including for updates, patching and bug fixes. The price also became prohibitive, Rummelt says. When the company first started bringing Infinidat into its datacenters, it leveraged the vendor’s capacity-on-demand pricing model, which was important.

”We didn’t have to buy all the capacity upfront, but the data but the disks were on the floor ready for use, so that was different,” Rummelt says. “With the VMAX, you had to guess how much you were going to have and if you had a really good month and your customers really started consuming stuff, the upgrade cycle was pretty expensive and pretty long to get all that capacity in place. But Infinidat really changed that for us. The capacity was on the floor and essentially, if you went over the amount that you told them you wanted to have licensed, that’s fine. It’s there for use and then they would follow up and true up with you at a later date. It was nice to have that on the floor. It was a mass amount of capacity and it took up less floor tile than the VMAX did as well.”

The InfiniBoxes also used up less floor space and the systems were more cost-effective than with 3Par and VMAX3, driving down overhead. The machine learning intelligence used for data management meant the systems were faster to respond, he says, adding that Infinidat is “not waiting to write slower or less hot data down on the disk. They’ve got a lot more DRAM, a lot more cache than the other platforms as well, so those disks themselves may not spin it a faster RPM, it was the intelligence of the data, what they’re doing with it. They’ve really increased and improved our performance for the storage.”

For a multi-tenancy environment like US Signal runs, with the company measuring latency for reads and writes from the SANS perspective. With the VMAX3 systems, the company was seeing latency in the range of 50 milliseconds. For the InfiniBoxes, it’s been below 5 milliseconds on average.

“That’s at peak,” he says. “They’re just so incredibly fast that there are so many disks, spindles to distribute IOPs, plus the intelligence of the data, plus the DRAM, plus the read cache. It uses the storage capacity smarter and there’s less overhead. There are very seldom bug-type things there. And when they are, they fix them very promptly.”

US Signal has about 2,000 customers and focuses primarily on managed service providers (MSPs), mid-level commercial organizations and small enterprises, though there are some enterprise customers, Amanda Regnerus, executive vice president of product and services at the company, tells The Next Platform. The current seven datacenters, located in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, combined have about 8 PB of capacity. That will grow to about 11 PB when the new Detroit facility and other datacenters come online.

While US Signal does rely on the InfiniBoxes, it does offer a flash option from Pure Storage, which some organizations opt for, depending on application needs. But the bulk of customers run on the Infinidat systems.

”We do still have some flash – a relatively new advancement,” Rummelt says. “Sometimes when it comes to flash, it can make sense, but for us, Infinidat solves most performance needs for our customers. When you take InfiniBox platform, you add in all of the things around that you’re using. You add in all the read cache, which is flash, add in the intelligence of the operating system and what it’s doing with the data. All of that combined can provide some pretty incredible performance that can rival some flash arrays, and you can get it at scale, too. You can have a serious performance at a pretty great price point compared to where flash is sitting today and what that costs.”

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