IT execs explain their moves to solid-state storage

Four companies show how performance boosts can make expensive NAND flash technology cost-effective

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"The other reason is that large enterprise companies such as EMC, Dell, HP and others are totally committed to their own storage product structure today. This structure is optimized around HDD, and it doesn't really work well when it comes to flash," Rozengarten added.

Most major storage vendors have been offering solid-state drives or PCIe flash cards in storage arrays for at least a couple of years. Rozengarten said those products are very expensive, and do not take full advantage of the performance potential of flash technology.

Rozengarten is quick to admit that NAND flash technology will never beat the per gigabyte price of HDDs. However, when targeted at specific applications, such as virtual desktop infrastructures and online relational databases, the costs to achieve the same performance with flash compared with HDDs can be vastly lower, he added.

More and faster customer response times

David Fruin, vice president of engineering at Vail Systems, said HDDs didn't cut it when it came to his SQL database's response times to customer inquiries.

Vail Systems, a telephony service provider for banks, insurance companies and others in the Fortune 500, runs an interactive voice response system for customer care and conference calls. The system can guide callers through processes such as automated credit card activation, Fruin said.

All phone calls become electronic records, storing in log information such as how long the call took, when it was made, how the caller used the system and if anything unusual occurred during the call. The company's Microsoft SQL Server database holds all log information and keeps billing records.

Vail processes more than 48 million billing records a day, and while each call log is relatively small, they add up to about 4.5GB of data in the SQL database per day.

Customer automated queries had required significant disk access at Vail because the server's memory could not handle random access across the whole database. The databases are mirrored for redundancy, but while redundant writes occurred, they effectively blocked read operations.

Prior to turning to flash storage, Vail had been using standard Dell servers with 12 10,000 rpm SAS drives set up in a RAID 10 configuration. The spindles didn't provide the response times the company needed. For example, response time for customers calling to check billing-records averaged five seconds, Fruin said.

"With SQL, if you're doing a query and you're looking for something that's not indexed, the SQL engine has to go to disk and inspect it and see what query you're looking for. For us, even one day's worth of data could be 100,000 records," Fruin said. "With no index, there are many seeks, and seeks are what kills performance in database queries."

Fruin said the company had to eliminate the disk-drive bottleneck without changing the architecture of the billing system or the customer-care interface. "Re-engineering the billing system on a No-SQL solution wouldn't achieve these goals," he said.

Thus, Fruin selected flash storage, first by adding 2.5-in Intel SSDs to the Dell servers, and then PCIe modules from Virident Systems. The SSDs improved performance, but only about four times. The two 1TB Virident flash modules offered up a 10x performance improvement over hard drives.

Virident's FlashMAX PCIe modules come as either high cost, high performance single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash or lower-performance, lower cost multi-level cell (MLC) NAND flash devices. They range in capacity from 550 gigabytes to 2.2 terabytes per module. The MLC cards, which Fruin chose, offer read performance of up to 1.3GBs or 325,000 IOPS using 4k blocks.

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