Have you ever seen the old BBC TV show “Connections”? It’s a little old now, but I loved how it followed threads through time, and I marveled at the surprising historical depth of important “inventions.” I think we need to remember that as engineers and technologists. We get caught up in the short-term tactical delivery of technology. We don’t see the sometimes immense ripples in society from our work – even years later.
I got a flurry of emails yesterday, arranging an anniversary get-together in August at the Apple campus. Why? It’s the 20th anniversary of the Newton. Ok – so this has nothing to do with LSI really, but it does have a lot to do with our everyday lives. More than you think.
So you either know the Newton and think it was a failure (think Trudeau’s famous handwriting cartoon), or you don’t and you’re wondering what the *bleep* I’m talking about. Sometimes things that don’t seem very significant early on end up having profound consequences. And I admit, the Newton was a failure, too expensive and not quite good enough, and the world couldn’t even get the concept of a general-purpose computer in your hand.
But oh – you could smell the future and get a tantalizing hint of what it would be. Remember – we’re talking 1993 here.
First – why does Rob Ober care? It’s personal. While I didn’t remotely help create the Newton, I did help bring it to market, mature the technology, and set the stage for the future (well – it’s not the future any more – it’s now). I was at Apple wrapping up the creation of the PowerPC processor and architecture, and the first Power Macs. I have a great memory around that time of getting the first Power Mac booted. Someone had the great idea of running the beta 68K emulator (to run standard Mac stuff). That was great, it worked, and then someone else said – wait – I have an Apple II emulator for the 68K Mac. So we had the very first PowerPC Mac running 68K code as a Mac to emulate a 6502 as an Apple II … and we played for hours. I also have a very clear memory of that PowerPC Mac standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Robotron game in the Valley Green 5 building break room. It was a state-of-the-art video game and looked like this.
Yea, that shows you it was a while ago. (But it was a good game.)
A guy named Shane Robison pulled me over (yea, the same HP CTO, now CEO of FusionIO) to come fix some things on the super-hush Newton program. In the end, I took over responsibility for the processors, custom chips, communication stacks and hardware, plastics and tooling, display, touch screen, power supply, wireless, NiMH and LiION batteries… A lot. We pushed the limits of state of the art on all those fronts. It was a really important wonderful/terrible part of my career. I learned an amazing amount.
(If you’re interested in viewing a Newton from today’s perspective, there is a fascinating review here: http://techland.time.com/2012/06/01/newton-reconsidered/)
Let me start with some boring effects. We were using the ARM processor because of its low power. But. It wasn’t perfect, and ARM itself was on the edge of insolvency. We invested a sizable chunk of money, and gave it guidance on how to transition from ARM 6 to 7 to 9. ARM is alive today because of that, and the ARM 9 is still in 100’s of millions of products. And we also worked with DEC to create the StrongARM processor family, which became XScale at Intel, then went to Marvel, and also bootstrapped Atom, and, and…
The Newton needed non-volatile storage. Disks were immense, expensive and power-hungry. 2-1/2” disk? Didn’t exist. 3-1/2” was small. The only remotely cost-effective technology was called NAND flash, which was fundamentally incompatible with program execution, and nightmarish for data storage/retrieval, and unbelievably expensive per bit. I think the early Newtons were 8 Mbytes? (that’s mega not giga…). The team figured out how to make that work. Yep – that was the first use of Toshiba NAND for program/data. (I’ve been playing with flash for storage since then.)
Then some more interesting things…
I wired the Apple campus with wireless LAN base stations (it would be 6 years until Wifi, and 802.11 wasn’t even dreamt up yet) and built the wireless LAN receivers into Newtons, gave them to the Apple execs and set up their mail to be forwarded. You couldn’t even do that on laptops. We could be anywhere in the campus and instantly receive and send emails. More – we could browse the (rudimentary) web. I also worked with RIM (yea – Research In Motion – Blackberry) and Metricom to use their wireless wide area net technology to give Newtons access to email and the Web anywhere in the Bay Area. Quite a few times I was driving to meetings, wasn’t sure where to go, so pulled over and looked up the meeting in my Newton calendar, then checked the address on my browser with MapQuest. 1995. Sound familiar?
We also spent time with FedEx pitching it on the idea of a Newton-based tablet to manage inventory (integrated bar code scanner), accept signatures on screen with tablet/pen (even the upside down thing to hand it to the customer), show route maps, and cellularly send all that info back and forth for live tracking. FedEx was stunned by the concept. Sound familiar? I still have the proposal book with industrial designs in my garage. Yes, another Silicon Valley garage. Here’s what it rolled out 10 years later… which is ultimately pretty similar to our proposal.
And don’t forget Object Programming. (You remember when OOPS was a high-tech term?) I’m not really a software guy – just not my thing – but I loved programming on the Newton. In 10 minutes you could actually bang out a useful, great-looking program. Personally, I think the world would have been way better off if those object libraries had been folded into the Java object library. Even so, I get a nostalgic feel when I do iOS programming.
I even built a one-off proto that had cellphone guts inside the plastic of the Newton. (OK – it was chunky, but the smallest phones at the time were HUGE). I could make phone calls from the contacts or calendar or emails, send and receive SMS messages, and rudimentary MMS messages before there was such a thing – used just like a very overweight iPhone (OK – more like the big Samsung galaxy phones). I could even, in a pinch, do data over the GSM network – email, web, etc. It was around that time Nokia came calling and asked about our UI, our OS, our ability to used data over the GSM network… Those talks fell apart, but it was serious enough I made trips to Nokia’s mothership in Helsinki and Tampere a few times. (That’s north even for a Canadian boy…)
And then years later I got a phone call from one of the key people at Apple – Mike Culbert (who, sadly, recently passed away) – to ask about cellular/baseband chipsets and solutions. He knew I knew the technology. I introduced him to my friends at Infineon (now Intel Mobile) for a discussion on a mystery project… Those parts ended up in the iPhone. A lot of the same people and technology, just way more advanced…
iPad? Sure. A lot of the same people were involved in a Newton that never saw the light of day. The BIC. Here it is with the iPad. Again – 15 years apart.
And you remember the $100 laptop (OLPC?). As a founding board member, I brought an eMate kids Newton laptop to show the team early on. And of course the debate on disk vs. flash followed the same path as it had in Newton. Here they are together, separated by more than 10 years. And then of course, OLPC has direct genetic parentage of netbooks, which then lead to Ultrabooks… (Did you know at one point Apple was considering joining OLPC and offering Darwin/OSX as the OS? Didn’t last long.)
And then there are the people. Off the top of my head there were founders or key movers of Palm, Xbox, Kindle, Hotmail, Yahoo, Netscape, Android, WebTV (think most set-top boxes), Danger phone (you remember the sidekick?), Evernote, Mercedes research and a bunch of others. And some friends who became well-known VCs. And I still have a lot of super-talented friends from that time, many of whom are still at Apple.
Sometimes things that don’t seem very significant have profound follow-on consequences. I think we need to remember that as engineers and technologists. We don’t see the sometimes immense ripples in society from our work – even years later. Today we’re planting the seeds for all those great things in the future. I admit, the Newton was a failure, but oh – you could smell the future and get a tantalizing hint of what it would be. Remember – we’re talking 1993 here.
Tags: 802.11, Android, Apple, Apple II, ARM, BIC, Blackberry, Darwin, DEC, eMate, Evernote, FedEx, FusionIO, Hotmail, HP, Intel, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Marvel, Mercedes, Metricom, Mike Culbert, MMS, Netscape, Newton, Nokia, object programming, OLPC, Palm, Power Mac, PowerPC, Research in Motion, Robotron, Shane Robison, SMS, StrongARM, Toshiba, Ultrabook, Web TV, Wifi, Xbox, XScale, Yahoo
I’ve just been to China. Again. It’s only been a few months since I was last there.
I was lucky enough to attend the 5th China Cloud Computing Conference at the China National Convention Center in Beijing. You probably have not heard of it, but it’s an impressive conference. It’s “the one” for the cloud computing industry. It was a unique view for me – more of an inside-out view of the industry. Everyone who’s anyone in China’s cloud industry was there.
First, the air was really hazy, but I don’t think the locals considered it that bad. The US consulate iPhone app said the particulates were in the very unhealthy range. Imagine looking across the street. Sure, you can see the building there, but the next one? Not so much. Look up. Can you see past the 10th floor? No, not really. The building disappears into the smog. That’s what it was like at the China National Convention Center, which is part of the same Olympics complex as the famous Birdcage stadium: http://www.cnccchina.com/en/Venues/Traffic.aspx
I had a fantastic chance to catch up with a university friend, who has been living in Beijing since the 90’s, and is now a venture capitalist. It’s amazing how almost 30 years can disappear and you pick up where you left off. He sure knows how to live. I was picked up in his private limo, whisked off to a very well-known restaurant across the city, where we had a private room and private waitress. We even had some exotic, special dishes that needed to be ordered at least a day in advance. Wow. But we broke Chinese tradition and had imported beer in honor of our Canadian education.
Sizing up China’s cloud infrastructure
The most unusual meeting I attended was an invitation-only session – the Sino-American roundtable on cloud computing. There were just about 40 people in a room – half from the US, half from China. Mostly what I learned is that the cloud infrastructure in China is fragmented, and probably sub-scale. And it’s like that for a reason. It was difficult to understand at first, but I think I’ve made sense of it.
I started asking why to friends and consultants and got some interesting answers. Essentially different regional governments are trying to capture the cloud “industry” in their locality, so they promote activity, and they promote creation of new tools and infrastructure for that. Why reuse something that’s open source and works if you don’t have to and you can create high-tech jobs? (That’s sarcasm, by the way.) Many technologists I spoke with felt this will hold them back, and that they are probably 3-5 years behind the US. As well, each government-run industry specifies the datacenter and infrastructure needed to be a supplier or ecosystem partner with them, and each is different. The national train system has a different cloud infrastructure from the agriculture department, and from the shipping authority, etc… and if you do business with them – that is you are part of their ecosystem of vendors, then you use their infrastructure. It all spells fragmentation and sub-scale. In contrast, the Web 2.0 / social media companies seem to be doing just fine.
Baidu was also showing off its open rack. It’s an embodiment of the Scorpio V1 standard, which was jointly developed with Tencent, Alibaba and China Telecom. It views this as a first experiment, and is looking forward to V2, which will be a much more mature system.
I was also lucky to have personal meetings with general managers,chief architects and effective CTOs of the biggest cloud companies in China. What did I learn? They are all at an inflexion point. Many of the key technologists have experience at American Web 2.0 companies, so they’re able to evolve quickly, leveraging their industry knowledge. They’re all working to build or grow their own datacenters, their own infrastructure. And they’re aggressively expanding products, not just users, so they’re getting a compound growth rate.
Here’s a little of what I learned. In general, there is a trend to try and simplify infrastructure, harmonize divergent platforms, and deploy more infrastructure by spending less on each unit. (In general, they don’t make as much per user as American companies, but they have more users). As a result they are more cost-focused than US companies. And they are starting to put more emphasis on operational simplicity in general. As one GM described it to me – “Yes, techs are inexpensive in China for maintainence, but more often than not they make mistakes that impact operations.” So we (LSI) will be focussing more on simplifying management and maintainence for them.
Baidu’s biggest Hadoop cluster is 20k nodes. I believe that’s as big as Yahoo’s – and it is the originator of Hadoop. Baidu has a unique use profile for flash – it’s not like the hyperscale datacenters in the US. But Baidu is starting to consume a lot. Like most other hyperscale datacenters, it is working on storage erasure coding across servers, racks and datacenters, and it is trying to make a unified namespace across everything. One of its main interests is architecture at datacenter level, harmonizing the various platforms and looking for the optimum at the datacenter level. In general, Baidu is very proud of the advances it has made, and it has real confidence in its vision and route forward, and from what I heard, its architectural ambitions are big.
JD.com (which used to be 360buy.com) is the largest direct ecommerce company in China and (only) had about $10 billion (US) in revenue last year, with 100% CAGR growth. As the GM there said, its growth has to slow sometime, or in 5 years it’ll be the biggest company in the world. I think it is the closest equivalent to Amazon there is out there, and they have similar ambitions. They are in the process of transforming to a self-built, self-managed datacenter infrastructure. It is a company I am going to keep my eyes on.
Tencent is expanding into some interesting new businesses. Sure, people know about the Tencent cloud services that the Chinese government will be using, but Tencent also has some interesting and unique cloud services coming. Let’s just say even I am interested in using them. And of course, while Tencent is already the largest Web 2.0 company in China, its new services promise to push it to new scale and new markets.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it …
And then there was press. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Yuan Shaolong, editor at WatchStor, that I think ran way over. Amazingly – we discovered we have the same favorite band, even half a world away from each other. The results are here, though I’m not sure if Google translate messed a few things up, or if there was some miscommunication, but in general, I think most of the basics are right: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://tech.watchstor.com/storage-module-144394.htm&prev=/search%3Fq%3Drobert%2Bober%2BLSI%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1346%26bih%3D619
I just keep learning new things every time I go to China. I suspect it has as much to do with how quickly things are changing as new stuff to learn. So I expect it won’t be too long until I go to China, again…
I was lucky enough to get together for dinner and beer with old friends a few weeks ago. Between the 4 of us, we’ve been involved in or responsible for a lot of stuff you use every day, or at least know about.
Supercomputers, minicomputers, PCs, Macs, Newton, smart phones, game consoles, automotive engine controllers and safety systems, secure passport chips, DRAM interfaces, netbooks, and a bunch of processor architectures: Alpha, PowerPC, Sparc, MIPS, StrongARM/XScale, x86 64-bit, and a bunch of other ones you haven’t heard of (um – most of those are mine, like TriCore). Basically if you drive a European car, travel internationally, use the Internet , if you play video games, or use a smart phone, well… you’re welcome.
Why do I tell you this? Well – first I’m name dropping – I’m always stunned I can call these guys friends and be their peers. But more importantly, we’ve all been in this industry as architects for about 30 years. Of course our talk went to what’s going on today. And we all agree that we’ve never seen more changes – inflexions – than the raft unfolding right now. Maybe its pressure from the recession, or maybe un-naturally pent up need for change in the ecosystem, but change there is.
Changes in who drives innovation, what’s needed, the companies on top and on bottom at every point in the food chain, who competes with whom, how workloads have changed from compute to dataflow, software has moved to opensource, how abstracted code is now from processor architecture, how individual and enterprise customers have been revolting against the “old” ways, old vendors, old business models, and what the architectures look like, how processors communicate, and how systems are purchased, and what fundamental system architectures look like. But not much besides that…
Ok – so if you’re an architect, that’s as exciting as it gets (you hear it in my voice – right ?), and it makes for a lot of opportunities to innovate and create new or changed businesses. Because innovation is so often at the intersection of changing ways of doing things. We’re at a point where the changes are definitely not done yet. We’re just at the start. (OK – now try to imagine a really animated 4-way conversation over beers at the Britannia Arms in Cupertino… Yea – exciting.)
I’m going to focus on just one sliver of the market – but it’s important to me – and that’s enterprise IT. I think the changes are as much about business models as technology.
Hyperscale datacenters drive innovation
I’ll start in a strange place. Hyperscale datacenters (think social media, search, etc.) and the scale of deployment changes the optimization point. Most of us starting to get comfortable with rack as the new purchase quantum. And some of us are comfortable with the pod or container as the new purchase quantum. But the hyperscale dataenters work more at the datacenter as the quantum. By looking at it that way, they can trade off the cost of power, real estate, bent sheet metal, network bandwidth, disk drives, flash, processor type and quantity, memory amount, where work gets done, and what applications are optimized for. In other words, we shifted from looking at local optima to looking for global optima. I don’t know about you, but when I took operations research in university, I learned there was an unbelievable difference between the two – and global optima was the one you wanted…
Hyperscale datacenters buy enough (top 6 are probably more than 10% of the market today) that 1) they need to determine what they deploy very carefully on their own, and 2) vendors work hard to give them what they need.
That means innovation used to be driven by OEMs, but now it’s driven by hyperscale datacenters and it’s driven hard. That global optimum? It’s work/$ spent. That’s global work, and global spend. It’s OK to spend more, even way more on one thing if over-all you get more done for the $’s you spend.
That’s why the 3 biggest consumers of flash in servers are Facebook, Google, and Apple, with some of the others not far behind. You want stuff, they want to provide it, and flash makes it happen efficiently. So efficiently they can often give that service away for free.
Hyperscale datacenters have started to publish their cost metrics, and open up their architectures (like OpenCompute), and open up their software (like Hadoop and derivatives). More to the point, services like Amazon have put a very clear $ value on services. And it’s shockingly low.
Enterprises are paying attention
Enterprises have looked at those numbers. Hard. That’s catalyzed a customer revolt against the old way of doing things – the old way of buy and billing. OEMs and ISVs are creating lots of value for enterprise, but not that much. They’ve been innovating around “stickiness” and “lock-in” (yea – those really are industry terms) for too long, while hyperscale datacenters have been focused on getting stuff done efficiently. The money they save per unit just means they can deploy more units and provide better services.
That revolt is manifesting itself in 2 ways. The first is seen in the quarterly reports of OEMs and ISVs. Rumors of IBM selling its X-series to Lenovo, Dell going private, Oracle trying to shift business, HP talking of the “new style of IT”… The second is enterprises are looking to emulate hyperscale datacenters as much as possible, and deploy private cloud infrastructure. And often as not, those will be running some of the same open source applications and file systems as the big hyperscale datacenters use.
Where are the hyperscale datacenters leading them? It’s a big list of changes, and they’re all over the place.
But they’re also looking at a few different things. For example, global name space NAS file systems. Personally? I think this one’s a mistake. I like the idea of file systems/object stores, but the network interconnect seems like a bottleneck. Storage traffic is shared with network traffic, creates some network spine bottlenecks, creates consistency performance bottlenecks between the NAS heads, and – let’s face it – people usually skimp on the number of 10GE ports on the server and in the top of rack switch. A typical SAS storage card now has 8 x 12G ports – that’s 96G of bandwidth. Will servers have 10 x 10G ports? Yea. I didn’t think so either.
Anyway – all this is not academic. One Wall Street bank shared with me that – hold your breath – it could save 70% of its spend going this route. It was shocked. I wasn’t shocked, because at first blush this seems absurd – not possible. That’s how I reacted. I laughed. But… The systems are simpler and less costly to make. There is simply less there to make or ship than OEMs force into the machines for uniqueness and “value.” They are purchased from much lower margin manufacturers. They have massively reduced maintenance costs (there’s less to service, and, well, no OEM service contracts). And also important – some of the incredibly expensive software licenses are flipped to open source equivalents. Net savings of 70%. Easy. Stop laughing.
Disaggregation: Or in other words, Pooled Resources
But probably the most important trend from all of this is what server manufacturers are calling “disaggregation” (hey – you’re ripping apart my server!) but architects are more descriptively calling pooled resources.
First – the intent of disaggregation is not to rip the parts of a server to pieces to get lowest pricing on the components. No. If you’re buying by the rack anyway – why not package so you can put like with like. Each part has its own life cycle after all. CPUs are 18 months. DRAM is several years. Flash might be 3 years. Disks can be 5 to 7 years. Networks are 5 to 10 years. Power supplies are… forever? Why not replace each on its own natural failure/upgrade cycle? Why not make enclosures appropriate to the technology they hold? Disk drives need solid vibration-free mechanical enclosures of heavy metal. Processors need strong cooling. Flash wants to run hot. DRAM cool.
Second – pooling allows really efficient use of resources. Systems need slush resources. What happens to a systems that uses 100% of physical memory? It slows down a lot. If a database runs out of storage? It blue screens. If you don’t have enough network bandwidth? The result is, every server is over provisioned for its task. Extra DRAM, extra network bandwidth, extra flash, extra disk drive spindles.. If you have 1,000 nodes you can easily strand TBytes of DRAM, TBytes of flash, a TByte/s of network bandwidth of wasted capacity, and all that always burning power. Worse, if you plan wrong and deploy servers with too little disk or flash or DRAM, there’s not much you can do about it. Now think 10,000 or 100,000 nodes… Ouch.
If you pool those things across 30 to 100 servers, you can allocate as needed to individual servers. Just as importantly, you can configure systems logically, not physically. That means you don’t have to be perfect in planning ahead what configurations and how many of each you’ll need. You have sub-assemblies you slap into a rack, and hook up by configuration scripts, and get efficient resource allocation that can change over time. You need a lot of storage? A little? Higher performance flash? Extra network bandwidth? Just configure them.
That’s a big deal.
And of course, this sets the stage for immense pooled main memory – once the next generation non-volatile memories are ready – probably starting around 2015.
You can’t underestimate the operational problems associated with different platforms at scale. Many hyperscale datacenters today have around 6 platforms. If you think they are rolling out new versions of those before old ones are retired they often have 3 generations of each. That’s 18 distinct platforms, with multiple software revisions of each. That starts to get crazy when you may have 200,000 to 400,000 servers to manage and maintain in a lights out environment. Pooling resources and allocating them in the field goes a huge way to simplifying operations.
Alternate Processor Architecture
It didn’t always used to be Intel x86. There was a time when Intel was an upstart in the server business. It was Power, MIPs, Alpha, SPARC… (and before that IBM mainframes and minis, etc). Each of the changes was brought on by changing the cost structure. Mainframes got displaced by multi-processor RISC, which gave way to x86.
Today, we have Oracle saying they’re getting out of x86 commodity servers and doubling down on SPARC. IBM is selling off its x86 business and doubling down on Power (hey – don’t confuse that with PowerPC – which started as an architectural cut-down of Power – I was there…). And of course there is a rash of 64-bit ARM server SOCs coming – with HP and Dell already dabbling in it. What’s important to realize is that all of these offerings are focusing on the platform architecture, and how applications really perform in total, not just the processor.
Let me warp up with an email thread cut/paste from a smart friend – Wayne Nation. I think he summed up some of what’s going on well, in a sobering way most people don’t even consider.
“Does this remind you of a time, long ago, when the market was exploding with companies that started to make servers out of those cheap little desktop x86 CPUs? What is different this time? Cost reduction and disaggregation? No, cost and disagg are important still, but not new.
A new CPU architecture? No, x86 was “new” before. ARM promises to reduce cost, as did Intel.
Disaggregation enables hyperscale datacenters to leverage vanity-free, but consistent delivery will determine the winning supplier. There is the potential for another Intel to rise from these other companies. “
I often think about green, environmental impact, and what we’re doing to the environment. One major reason I became an engineer was to leave the world a little better than when I arrived. I’ve gotten sidetracked a few times, but I’ve tried to help, even if just a little.
The good people in LSI’s EHS (Environment, Health & Safety) asked me a question the other day about carbon footprint, energy impact, and materials use. Which got me thinking … OK – I know most people in LSI don’t really think of ourselves as a “green tech” company. But we are – really. No foolin’. We are having a big impact on the global power consumption and material consumption of the IT industry. And I mean that in a good way.
There are many ways to look at this, both from what we enable datacenters to do, to what we enable integrators to do, all the way to hard-core technology improvements and massive changes in what it’s possible to do.
Back in 2008 I got to speak at the AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference. (I was lucky enough to be just after Elon Musk– he’s a lot more famous now with Tesla doing so well.
http://www.smartplanet.com/video/making-the-case-for-green-it/305467 (at 2:09 in video)
IT consumes massive amounts of energy
The massive deployment of IT equipment, all the ancillary metal, plastic wiring, etc. that goes with them, consumes energy as its being shipped and moved halfway around the world, and, more importantly, then gets scrapped out quickly. This has been a concern for me for quite a while. I mean – think about that. As an industry we are generating about 9 million servers a year, about 3 million go into hyperscale datacenters (or hyperscale if you prefer). Many of those are scrapped on a 2, 3 or 4 year cycle – so in steady state, maybe 1 million to 2 million a year are scrapped. Worse – there is amazing use of energy by that many servers (even as they have advanced the state of the art unbelievably since 2008). And frankly, you and I are responsible for using all that power. Did you know thousands of servers are activated every time you make a Google® query from your phone?
I want to take a look at basic silicon improvements we make, the impact of disk architecture improvement, SSDs, system and improvements, efficiency improvements, and also where we’re going in the near future with eliminating scrap in hard drives and batteries. In reality, it’s the massive pressure on work/$ that has made us optimize everything – being able to do much more work at a lower cost, when a lot of cost is the energy and material that goes into the products that forces our hand. But the result is a real, profound impact on our carbon footprint that we should be proud of.
Sure we have a general silicon roadmap where each node enables reduced power, even as some standards and improvements actually increase individual device power. For example, our transition from 28nm semi process to 14nm FinFET can literally cut the power consumption of a chip in half. But that’s small potatoes.
How about Ethernet? It’s everywhere – right? Did you know servers often have 4 ethernet ports, and that there are a matching 4 ports on a network switch? LSI pioneered something called Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE). We’re also one of the biggest manufacturers of Ethernet PHYs – the part that drives the cable – and we come standard in everything from personal computers to servers to enterprise switches. The savings are hard to estimate, because they depend very much on how much traffic there is, but you can realistically save Watts per interface link, and there are often 256 links in a rack. 500 Watts per rack is no joke, and in some datacenters it adds up to 1 or 2 MegaWatts.
How about something a little bigger and more specific? Hard disk drives. Did you know a typical hyperscale datacenter has between 1 million and 1.5 million disk drives? Each one of those consumes about 9 Watts, and most have 2 TBytes of capacity. So for easy math, 1 million drives is about 9 MegaWatts (!?) and about 2 Exabytes of capacity (remember – data is often replicated 3 or more times). Data capacities in these facilities are needed to grow about 50% per year. So if we did nothing, we would need to go from 1 million drives to 1.5 million drives: 9 MegaWatts goes to 13.5 MegaWatts. Wow! Instead – our high linearity, low noise PA and read channel designs are allowing drives to go to 4 TBytes per drives. (Sure the chip itself may use slightly more power, but that’s not the point, what it enables is a profound difference.) So to get that 50% increase in capacity we could actually reduce the number of drives deployed, with a net savings of 6.75 MegaWatts. Consider an average US home, with air conditioning, uses 1 kiloWatt. That’s almost 7,000 homes. In reality – they won’t get deployed that way – but it will still be a huge savings. Instead of buying another 0.5 million drives they would buy 0.25 million drives with a net savings of 2.2 MegaWatts. That’s still HUGE! (way to go, guys!) How many datacenters are doing that? Dozens. So that’s easily 20 or 30 MegaWatts globally. Did I say we saved them money too? A lot of money.
SSDs sip power to help improve energy profile
SSDs don’t always get the credit they deserve. Yes, they really are fast, and they are awesome in your laptop, but they also end up being much lower power than hard drives. Our controllers were in about half the flash solutions shipped last year. Think tens of millions. If you just assume they were all laptop SSDs (at least half were not) then that’s another 20 MegaWatts in savings.
Did you know that in a traditional datacenter, about 30% of the power going into the building is used for air conditioning? It doesn’t actually get used on the IT equipment at all, but is used to remove the heat that the IT equipment generates. We design our solutions so they can accommodate 40C ambient inlet air (that’s a little over 100F… hot). What that means is that the 30% of power used for the air conditioners disappears. Gone. That’s not theoretical either. Most of the large social media, search engine, web shopping, and web portal companies are using our solutions this way. That’s a 30% reduction in the power of storage solutions globally. Again, its MegaWatts in savings. And mega money savings too.
But let’s really get to the big hitters: improved work per server. Yep – we do that. In fact adding a Nytro™ MegaRAID® solution will almost always give you 4x the work out of a server. It’s a slam dunk if you’re running a database. You heard me – 1 server doing the work that it previously took 4 servers to do. Not only is that a huge savings in dollars (especially if you pay for software licenses!) but it’s a massive savings in power. You can replace 4 servers with 1, saving at least 900 Watts, and that lone server that’s left is actually dissipating less power too, because it’s actively using fewer HDDs, and using flash for most traffic instead. If you go a step further and use Nytro WarpDrive Flash cards in the servers, you can get much more – 6 to 8 times the work. (Yes, sometimes up to 10x, but let’s not get too excited). If you think that’s just theoretical again, check your Facebook® account, or download something from iTunes®. Those two services are the biggest users of PCIe® flash in the world. Why? It works cost effectively. And in case you haven’t noticed those two companies like to make money, not spend it. So again, we’re talking about MegaWatts of savings. Arguably on the order of 150 MegaWatts. Yea – that’s pretty theoretical, because they couldn’t really do the same work otherwise, but still, if you had to do the work in a traditional way, it would be around that.
It’s hard to be more precise than giving round numbers at these massive scales, but the numbers are definitely in the right zone. I can say with a straight face we save the world 10’s, and maybe even 100’s of MegaWatts per year. But no one sees that, and not many people even think about it. Still – I’d say LSI is a green hero.
Hey – we’re not done by a long shot. Let’s just look at scrap. If you read my earlier post on false disk failure, you’ll see some scary numbers. (http://blog.lsi.com/what-is-false-disk-failure-and-why-is-it-a-problem/ ) A normal hyperscale datacenter can expect 40-60 disks per day to be mistakenly scrapped out. That’s around 20,000 disk drives a year that should not have been scrapped, from just one web company. Think of the material waste, shipping waste, manufacturing waste, and eWaste issues. Wow – all for nothing. We’re working on solutions to that. And batteries. Ugly, eWaste, recycle only, heavy metal batteries. They are necessary for RAID protected storage systems. And much of the world’s data is protected that way – the battery is needed to save meta-data and transient writes in the event of a power failure, or server failure. We ship millions a year. (Sorry, mother earth). But we’re working diligently to make that a thing of the past. And that will also result in big savings for datacenters in both materials and recycling costs.
Can we do more? Sure. I know I am trying to get us the core technologies that will help reduce power consumption, raise capability and performance, and reduce waste. But we’ll never be done with that march of technology. (Which is a good thing if engineering is your career…)
I still often think about green, environmental impact, and what we’re doing to the environment. And I guess in my own small way, I am leaving the world a little better than when I arrived. And I think we at LSI should at least take a moment and pat ourselves on the back for that. You have to celebrate the small victories, you know? Even as the fight goes on.
I want to warn you, there is some thick background information here first. But don’t worry. I’ll get to the meat of the topic and that’s this: Ultimately, I think that PCIe® cards will evolve to more external, rack-level, pooled flash solutions, without sacrificing all their great attributes today. This is just my opinion, but other leaders in flash are going down this path too…
I’ve been working on enterprise flash storage since 2007 – mulling over how to make it work. Endurance, capacity, cost, performance have all been concerns that have been grappled with. Of course the flash is changing too as the nodes change: 60nm, 50nm, 35nm, 24nm, 20nm… and single level cell (SLC) to multi level cell (MLC) to triple level cell (TLC) and all the variants of these “trimmed” for specific use cases. The spec “endurance” has gone from 1 million program/erase cycles (PE) to 3,000, and in some cases 500.
It’s worth pointing out that almost all the “magic” that has been developed around flash was already scoped out in 2007. It just takes a while for a whole new industry to mature. Individual die capacity increased, meaning fewer die are needed for a solution – and that means less parallel bandwidth for data transfer… And the “requirement” for state-of-the-art single operation write latency has fallen well below the write latency of the flash itself. (What the ?? Yea – talk about that later in some other blog. But flash is ~1500uS write latency, where state of the art flash cards are ~50uS.) When I describe the state of technology it sounds pretty pessimistic. I’m not. We’ve overcome a lot.
We built our first PCIe card solution at LSI in 2009. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than anything else out there in many ways. We’ve learned a lot in the years since – both from making them, and from dealing with customer and users – about our own solutions and our competitors. We’re lucky to be an important player in storage, so in general the big OEMs, large enterprises and the hyperscale datacenters all want to talk with us – not just about what we have or can sell, but what we could have and what we could do. They’re generous enough to share what works and what doesn’t. What the values of solutions are and what the pitfalls are too. Honestly? It’s the hyperscale datacenters in the lead both practically and in vision.
If you haven’t nodded off to sleep yet, that’s a long-winded way of saying – things have changed fast, and, boy, we’ve learned a lot in just a few years.
Most important thing we’ve learned…
Most importantly, we’ve learned it’s latency that matters. No one is pushing the IOPs limits of flash, and no one is pushing the bandwidth limits of flash. But they sure are pushing the latency limits.
PCIe cards are great, but…
We’ve gotten lots of feedback, and one of the biggest things we’ve learned is – PCIe flash cards are awesome. They radically change performance profiles of most applications, especially databases allowing servers to run efficiently and actual work done by that server to multiply 4x to 10x (and in a few extreme cases 100x). So the feedback we get from large users is “PCIe cards are fantastic. We’re so thankful they came along. But…” There’s always a “but,” right??
It tends to be a pretty long list of frustrations, and they differ depending on the type of datacenter using them. We’re not the only ones hearing it. To be clear, none of these are stopping people from deploying PCIe flash… the attraction is just too compelling. But the problems are real, and they have real implications, and the market is asking for real solutions.
Of course, everyone wants these fixed without affecting single operation latency, or increasing cost, etc. That’s what we’re here for though – right? Solve the impossible?
A quick summary is in order. It’s not looking good. For a given solution, flash is getting less reliable, there is less bandwidth available at capacity because there are fewer die, we’re driving latency way below the actual write latency of flash, and we’re not satisfied with the best solutions we have for all the reasons above.
If you think these through enough, you start to consider one basic path. It also turns out we’re not the only ones realizing this. Where will PCIe flash solutions evolve over the next 2, 3, 4 years? The basic goals are:
One easy answer would be – that’s a flash SAN or NAS. But that’s not the answer. Not many customers want a flash SAN or NAS – not for their new infrastructure, but more importantly, all the data is at the wrong end of the straw. The poor server is left sucking hard. Remember – this is flash, and people use flash for latency. Today these SAN type of flash devices have 4x-10x worse latency than PCIe cards. Ouch. You have to suck the data through a relatively low bandwidth interconnect, after passing through both the storage and network stacks. And there is interaction between the I/O threads of various servers and applications – you have to wait in line for that resource. It’s true there is a lot of startup energy in this space. It seems to make sense if you’re a startup, because SAN/NAS is what people use today, and there’s lots of money spent in that market today. However, it’s not what the market is asking for.
Another easy answer is NVMe SSDs. Right? Everyone wants them – right? Well, OEMs at least. Front bay PCIe SSDs (HDD form factor or NVMe – lots of names) that crowd out your disk drive bays. But they don’t fix the problems. The extra mechanicals and form factor are more expensive, and just make replacing the cards every 5 years a few minutes faster. Wow. With NVME SSDs, you can fit fewer HDDs – not good. They also provide uniformly bad cooling, and hard limit power to 9W or 25W per device. But to protect the storage in these devices, you need to have enough of them that you can RAID or otherwise protect. Once you have enough of those for protection, they give you awesome capacity, IOPs and bandwidth, too much in fact, but that’s not what applications need – they need low latency for the working set of data.
What do I think the PCIe replacement solutions in the near future will look like? You need to pool the flash across servers (to optimize bandwidth and resource usage, and allocate appropriate capacity). You need to protect against failures/errors and limit the span of failure, commit writes at very low latency (lower than native flash) and maintain low latency, bottleneck-free physical links to each server… To me that implies:
That means the performance looks exactly as if each server had multiple PCIe cards. But the capacity and bandwidth resources are shared, and systems can remain resilient. So ultimately, I think that PCIe cards will evolve to more external, rack level, pooled flash solutions, without sacrificing all their great attributes today. This is just my opinion, but as I say – other leaders in flash are going down this path too…
What’s your opinion?
Tags: DAS, datacenter, direct attached storage, enterprise IT, flash, hard disk drive, HDD, hyperscale, latency, NAS, network attached storage, NVMe, PCIe, SAN, solid state drive, SSD, storage area network
I’ve been travelling to China quite a bit over the last year or so. I’m sitting in Shenzhen right now (If you know Chinese internet companies, you’ll know who I’m visiting). The growth is staggering. I’ve had a bit of a trains, planes, automobiles experience this trip, and that’s exposed me to parts of China I never would have seen otherwise. Just to accommodate sheer population growth and the modest increase in wealth, there is construction everywhere – a press of people and energy, constant traffic jams, unending urban centers, and most everything is new. Very new. It must be exciting to be part of that explosive growth. What a market. I mean – come on – there are 1.3 billion potential users in China.
The amazing thing for me is the rapid growth of hyperscale datacenters in China, which is truly exponential. Their infrastructure growth has been 200%-300% CAGR for the past few years. It’s also fantastic walking into a building in China, say Baidu, and feeling very much at home – just like you walked into Facebook or Google. It’s the same young vibe, energy, and ambition to change how the world does things. And it’s also the same pleasure – talking to architects who are super-sharp, have few technical prejudices, and have very little vanity – just a will to get to business and solve problems. Polite, but blunt. We’re lucky that they recognize LSI as a leader, and are willing to spend time to listen to our ideas, and to give us theirs.
Even their infrastructure has a similar feel to the US hyperscale datacenters. The same only different. ;-)
A lot of these guys are growing revenue at 50% per year, several getting 50% gross margin. Those are nice numbers in any country. One has $100’s of billions in revenue. And they’re starting to push out of China. So far their pushes into Japan have not gone well, but other countries should be better. They all have unique business models. “We” in the US like to say things like “Alibaba is the Chinese eBay” or “Sina Weibo is the Chinese Twitter”…. But that’s not true – they all have more hybrid business models, unique, and so their datacenter goals, revenue and growth have a slightly different profile. And there are some very cool services that simply are not available elsewhere. (You listening Apple®, Google®, Twitter®, Facebook®?) But they are all expanding their services, products and user base. Interestingly, there is very little public cloud in China. So there are no real equivalents to Amazon’s services or Microsoft’s Azure. I have heard about current development of that kind of model with the government as initial customer. We’ll see how that goes.
100’s of thousands of servers. They’re not the scale of Google, but they sure are the scale of Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft…. It’s a serious market for an outfit like LSI. Really it’s a very similar scale now to the US market. Close to 1 million servers installed among the main 4 players, and exabytes of data (we’ve blown past mere petabytes). Interestingly, they still use many co-location facilities, but that will change. More important – they’re all planning to probably double their infrastructure in the next 1-2 years – they have to – their growth rates are crazy.
Often 5 or 6 distinct platforms, just like the US hyperscale datacenters. Database platforms, storage platforms, analytics platforms, archival platforms, web server platforms…. But they tend to be a little more like a rack of traditional servers that enterprise buys with integrated disk bays, still a lot of 1G Ethernet, and they are still mostly from established OEMs. In fact I just ran into one OEM’s American GM, who I happen to know, in Tencent’s offices today. The typical servers have 12 HDDs in drive bays, though they are starting to look at SSDs as part of the storage platform. They do use PCIe® flash cards in some platforms, but the performance requirements are not as extreme as you might imagine. Reasonably low latency and consistent latency are the premium they are looking for from these flash cards – not maximum IOPs or bandwidth – very similar to their American counterparts. I think hyperscale datacenters are sophisticated in understanding what they need from flash, and not requiring more than that. Enterprise could learn a thing or two.
Some server platforms have RAIDed HDDs, but most are direct map drives using a high availability (HA) layer across the server center – Hadoop® HDFS or self-developed Hadoop like platforms. Some have also started to deploy microserver archival “bit buckets.” A small ARM® SoC with 4 HDDs totaling 12 TBytes of storage, giving densities like 72 TBytes of file storage in 2U of rack. While I can only find about 5,000 of those in China that are the first generation experiments, it’s the first of a growing wave of archival solutions based on lower performance ARM servers. The feedback is clear – they’re not perfect yet, but the writing is on the wall. (If you’re wondering about the math, that’s 5,000 x 12 TBytes = 60 Petabytes….)
Yes, it’s important, but maybe more than we’re used to. It’s harder to get licenses for power in China. So it’s really important to stay within the envelope of power your datacenter has. You simply can’t get more. That means they have to deploy solutions that do more in the same power profile, especially as they move out of co-located datacenters into private ones. Annually, 50% more users supported, more storage capacity, more performance, more services, all in the same power. That’s not so easy. I would expect solar power in their future, just as Apple has done.
Here’s where it gets interesting. They are developing a cousin to OpenCompute that’s called Scorpio. It’s Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and China Telecom so far driving the standard. The goals are similar to OpenCompute, but more aligned to standardized sub-systems that can be co-mingled from multiple vendors. There is some harmonization and coordination between OpenCompute and Scorpio, and in fact the Scorpio companies are members of OpenCompute. But where OpenCompute is trying to change the complete architecture of scale-out clusters, Scorpio is much more pragmatic – some would say less ambitious. They’ve finished version 1 and rolled out about 200 racks as a “test case” to learn from. Baidu was the guinea pig. That’s around 6,000 servers. They weren’t expecting more from version 1. They’re trying to learn. They’ve made mistakes, learned a lot, and are working on version 2.
Even if it’s not exciting, it will have an impact because of the sheer size of deployments these guys are getting ready to roll out in the next few years. They see the progression as 1) they were using standard equipment, 2) they’re experimenting and learning from trial runs of Scorpio versions 1 and 2, and then they’ll work on 3) new architectures that are efficient and powerful, and different.
Information is pretty sketchy if you are not one of the member companies or one of their direct vendors. We were just invited to join Scorpio by one of the founders, and would be the first group outside of China to do so. If that all works out, I’ll have a much better idea of the details, and hopefully can influence the standards to be better for these hyperscale datacenter applications. Between OpenCompute and Scorpio we’ll be seeing a major shift in the industry – a shift that will undoubtedly be disturbing to a lot of current players. It makes me nervous, even though I’m excited about it. One thing is sure – just as the server market volume is migrating from traditional enterprise to hyperscale datacenter (25-30% of the server market and growing quickly), we’re starting to see a migration to Chinese hyperscale datacenters from US-based ones. They have to grow just to stay still. I mean – come on – there are 1.3 billion potential users in China….
Tags: Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, ARM, Baidu, China, China Telecom, datacenter, Facebook, Google, Hadoop, hard disk drive, HDD, hyperscale, Microsoft, OpenCompute, Scorpio, Shenzhen, Sina Weibo, solid state drive, SSD, Tencent, Twitter
I’ve spent a lot of time with hyperscale datacenters around the world trying to understand their problems – and I really don’t care what area those problems are as long as they’re important to the datacenter. What is the #1 Real Problem for many hyperscale datacenters? It’s something you’ve probably never heard about, and probably have not even thought about. It’s called false disk failure. Some hyperscale datacenters have crafted their own solutions – but most have not.
Why is this important, you ask? Many large datacenters today have 1 million to 4 million hard disk drives (HDDs) in active operation. In anyone’s book that’s a lot. It’s also a very interesting statistical sample size of HDDs. Hyperscale datacenters get great pricing on HDDs. Probably better than OEMs get, and certainly better than the $79 for buying 1 HDD at your local Fry’s store. So you would imagine if a disk fails – no one cares – they’re cheap and easy to replace. But the burden of a failed disk is much more than the raw cost of the disk:
Let’s put some scale to this problem, and you’ll begin to understand the issue. One modest size hyperscale datacenter has been very generous in sharing its real numbers. (When I say modest, they are ~1/4 to 1/2 the size of many other hyperscale datacenters, but they are still huge – more than 200k servers). Other hyperscale datacenters I have checked with say – yep, that’s about right. And one engineer I know at an HDD manufacturer said – “wow – I expected worse than that. That’s pretty good.” To be clear – these are very good HDDs they are using, it’s just that the numbers add up.
The raw data:
RAIDed SAS HDDs
Non-RAIDed (direct map) SATA drives behind HBAs
What’s interesting is the relative failure rate of SAS drives vs. SATA. It’s about an order of magnitude worse in SATA drives than SAS. Frankly some of this is due to protocol differences. SAS allows far more error recovery capabilities, and because they also tend to be more expensive, I believe manufacturers invest in slightly higher quality electronics and components. I know the electronics we ship into SAS drives is certainly more sophisticated than SATA drives.
False fail? What? Yea, that’s an interesting topic. It turns out that about 40% of the time with SAS and about 50% of the time with SATA, the drive didn’t actually fail. It just lost its marbles for a while. When they pull the drive out and put it into a test jig, everything is just fine. And more interesting, when they put the drive back into service, it is no more statistically likely to fail again than any other drive in the datacenter. Why? No one knows. I suspect though.
I used to work on engine controllers. That’s a very paranoid business. If something goes wrong and someone crashes, you have a lawsuit on your hands. If a controller needs a recall, that’s millions of units to replace, with a multi-hundred dollar module, and hundreds of dollars in labor for each one replaced. No one is willing to take that risk. So we designed very carefully to handle soft errors in memory and registers. We incorporated ECC like servers use, background code checksums and scrubbing, and all sorts of proprietary techniques, including watchdogs and super-fast self-resets that could get operational again in less than a full revolution of the engine. Why? – the events were statistically rare. The average controller might see 1 or 2 events in its lifetime, and a turn of the ignition would reset that state. But the events do happen, and so do recalls and lawsuits… HDD controllers don’t have these protections, which is reasonable. It would be an inappropriate cost burden for their price point.
You remember the Toyota Prius accelerator problems? I know that controller was not protected for soft errors. And the source of the problem remained a “mystery.” Maybe it just lost its marbles for a while? A false fail if you will. Just sayin’.
Back to HDDs. False fail is especially frustrating, because half the HDDs actually didn’t need to be replaced. All the operational costs were paid for no reason. The disk just needed a power cycle reset. (OK, that introduces all sorts of complex management by the RAID controller or application to manage that 10 second power reset cycle and application traffic created in that time – be we can handle that.)
Daily, this datacenter has to:
And 1/2 of that is for no reason at all.
First – why not rebuild the disk if it’s RAIDed? Usually hyperscale datacenters use clustered applications. A traditional RAID rebuild drives the server performance to ~50%, and for a 2TByte drive, under heavy application load (definition of a hyperscale datacenter) can truly take up to a week. 50% performance for a week? In a cluster that means the overall cluster is running ~50% performance. Say 200 nodes in a cluster – that means you just lost ~100 nodes of work – or 50% of cluster performance. It’s much simpler to just take the node offline with the failed drive, and get 99.5% cluster performance, and operationally redistribute the workload across multiple nodes (because you have replicated data elsewhere). But after rebuild, the node will have to be re-synced or re-imaged. There are ways to fix all this. We’ll talk about them on another day. Or you can simply run direct mapped storage, and unmounts the failed drive.
Next – Why replicate data over the network, and why is that a big deal? For geographic redundancy (say a natural disaster at one facility) and regional locality, hyperscale datacenters need multiple data copies. Often 3 copies so they can do double duty as high-availability copies, or in the case of some erasure coding, 2.2 to 2.5 copies (yea – weird math – how do you have 0.5 copy…). When you lose one copy, you are down to 2, possibly 1. You need to get back to a reliable number again. Fast. Customers are loyal because of your perfect data retention. So you need to replicate that data and re-distribute it across the datacenter on multiple servers. That’s network traffic, and possibly congestion, which affects other aspects of the operations of the datacenter. In this datacenter it’s about 50 hours of 10G Ethernet traffic every day.
To be fair, there is a new standard in SAS interfaces that will facilitate resetting a disk in-situ. And there is the start of discussion of the same around SATA – but that’s more problematic. Whatever the case, it will be a years before the ecosystem is in place to handle the problems this way.
What’s that mean to you?
Well. You can expect something like 1/100 of your drives to really fail this year. And you can expect another 1/100 of your drives to fail this year, but not actually be failed. You’ll still pay all the operational overhead of not actually having a failed drive – rebuilds, disk replacements, management interventions, scheduled downtime/maintenance time, and the OEM replacement price for that drive – what $600 or so ?… Depending on your size, that’s either a don’t care, or a big deal. There are ways to handle this, and they’re not expensive – much less than the disk carrier you already pay for to allow you to replace that drive – and it can be handled transparently – just a log entry without seeing any performance hiccups. You just need to convince your OEM to carry the solution.
Anyone who knows me knows I like to ask “why?” Maybe I never outgrew the 2-year-old phase. But I also like to ask “why not?” Every now and then you need to rethink everything you know top to bottom because something might have changed.
I’ve been talking to a lot of enterprise datacenter architects and managers lately. They’re interested in using flash in their servers and storage, but they can’t get over all the “problems.”
The conversation goes something like this: Flash is interesting, but it’s crazy expensive $/bit. The prices have to come way down – after all it’s just a commodity part. And I have these $4k servers – why would I put an $8k PCIe card in them – that makes no sense. And the stuff wears out, which is an operational risk for me – disks last forever. Maybe flash isn’t ready for prime time yet.
These arguments are reasonable if you think about flash as a disk replacement, and don’t think through all the follow-on implications.
In contrast I’ve also been spending a lot of time with the biggest datacenters in the world – you know – the ones we all know by brand name. They have at least 200k servers, and anywhere from 1.5 million to 7 million disks. They notice CapEx and OpEx a lot. You multiply anything by that much and it’s noticeable. (My simple example is add 1 LED to each server with 200k servers and the cost adds up to 26K watts + $10K LED cost.) They are very scientific about cost. More specifically they measure work/$ very carefully. Anything to increase work or reduce $ is very interesting – doing both at once is the holy grail. Already one of those datacenters is completely diskless. Others are part way there, or have the ambition of being there. You might think they’re crazy – how can they spend so much on flash when disks are so much cheaper, and these guys offer their services for free?
When the large datacenters – I call the hyperscale datacenters – measure cost, they’re looking at purchase cost, including metal racks and enclosures, shipping, service cost both parts and human expense, as well as operational disruption overhead and the complexity of managing that, the opportunity cost of new systems vs. old systems that are less efficient, and of course facilities expenses – buildings, power, cooling, people… They try to optimize the mix of these.
Let’s look at the arguments against using flash one by one.
Flash is just a commodity part
This is a very big fallacy. It’s not a commodity part, and flash is not all the same. The parts you see in cheap consumer devices deserve their price. In the chip industry, it’s common to have manufacturing fallout; 3% – 10% is reasonable. What’s more the devices come at different performance levels – just look at x86 performance versions of the same design. In the flash business 100% of the devices are sold, used, and find their way into products. Those cheap consumer products are usually the 3%-10% that would be scrap in other industries. (I was once told – with a smile – “those are the parts we sweep off the floor”…)
Each generation of flash (about 18 months between them) and each manufacturer (there are 5, depending how you count) have very different characteristics. There are wild differences in erase time, write time, read time, bandwidth, capacity, endurance, and cost. There is no one supplier that is best at all of these, and leadership moves around. More importantly, in a flash system, how you trade these things off has a huge effect on write latency (#1 impactor on work done), latency outliers (consistent operation), endurance or life span, power consumption, and solution cost. All flash products are not equal – not by a long shot. Even hyperscale datacenters have different types of solutions for different needs.
It’s also important to know that temperature of operation and storage, inter-arrival time of writes, and “over provisioning” (the amount hidden for background use and garbage collection) have profound impacts on lifespan and performance.
$8k PCIe card in a $4k server – really?
I am always stunned by this. No one thinks twice about spending more on virtualization licenses than on hardware, or say $50k for a database license to run on a $4k server. It’s all about what work you need to accomplish, and what’s the best way to accomplish it. It’s no joke that in database applications it’s pretty easy to get 4x the work from a server with a flash solution inserted. You probably won’t get worse than 4x, and as good as 10x. On a purely hardware basis, that makes sense – I can have 1 server @ $4k + $8K flash vs. 4 servers @ $4k. I just saved $4k CapEx. More importantly, I saved the service contract, power, cooling and admin of 3 servers. If I include virtualization or database licenses, I saved another $150k + annual service contracts on those licenses. That’s easy math. If I worry about users supported rather than work done, I can support as many as 100x users. The math becomes overwhelming. $8K PCIe card in a $4k server? You bet when I think of work/$.
The stuff wears out & disks last forever
It’s true that car tires wear out, and depending on how hard you use them that might be faster or slower. But tires are one of the most important parts in a cars performance – acceleration, stopping, handling – you couldn’t do any of that without them. The only time you really have catastrophic failure with tires is when you wear them way past any reasonable point – until they are bald and should have been replaced. Flash is like that – you get lots of warning as its wearing out, and you get lots of opportunity to operationally plan and replace the flash without disruption. You might need to replace it after 4 or 5 years, but you can plan and do it gracefully. Disks can last “forever,” but they also fail randomly and often.
Reliability statistics across millions of hard drives show somewhere around 2.5% fail annually. And that’s for 1st quality drives. Those are unpredicted, catastrophic failures, and depending on your storage systems that means you need to go into rebuild or replication of TBytes of data, and you have a subsequent degradation in performance (which can completely mess up load balancing of a cluster of 20 to 200 other nodes too), potentially network traffic overhead, and a physical service event that needs to be handled manually and fairly quickly. And really – how often do admins want to take the risk of physically replacing a drive while a system is running. Just one mistake by your tech and it’s all over… Operationally flash is way better, less disruptive, predictable, lower cost, and the follow on implications are much simpler.
Crazy expensive $/bit
OK – so this argument doesn’t seem so relevant anymore. Even so, in most cases you can’t use much of the disk capacity you have. It will be stranded because you need to have spare space as databases, etc. grow. If you run out of space for db’s the result is catastrophic. If you are driving a system hard, you often don’t have the bandwidth left to actually access that extra capacity. It’s common to only use ½ of the available capacity of drives.
Caching solutions change the equation as well. You can spend money on flash for the performance characteristics, and shift disk drive spend to fewer, higher capacity, slower, more power efficient drives for bulk capacity. Often for the same or similar overall storage spend you can have the same capacity at 4x the system performance. And the space and power consumed and cooling needed for that system is dramatically reduced.
Even so, flash is not going to replace large capacity storage for a long, long time, if ever. What ever the case, the $/bit is simply not the right metric for evaluating flash. But it’s true, flash is more expensive per bit. It’s simply that in most operational contexts, it more than makes up for that by other savings and work/$ improvements.
So I would argue (and I’m backed up by the biggest hyperscale datacenters in the world) that flash is ready for prime time adoption. Work/$ is the correct metric, but you need to measure from the application down to the storage bits to get that metric. It’s not correct to think about flash as “just a disk replacement” – it changes the entire balance of a solution stack from application performance and responsiveness and cumulative work, to server utilization to power consumption and cooling to maintenance and service to predictable operational stability. It’s not just a small win; it’s a big win. It’s not a fit yet for large pools of archival storage – but even for that a lot of energy is going into trying to make that work. So no – enterprise will not go diskless for quite a while, but it is understandable why hyperscale datacenters want to go diskless. It’s simple math.
Every now and then you need to rethink everything you know top to bottom because something might have changed.