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EMC puts future on FAST forward

Towards Fibre Channel elimination and two-tier arrays

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EMC is heading towards a FAST future, with transparent and automated data movement between NAND flash and spinning disk in its drive arrays.

In a Tech Talk yesterday - reported by Stifel Nicolaus analyst Aaron Rakers - Barry Burke, Symmetrix chief strategy officer, said that FAST (Fully-Automated Storage Tiering) will be released soon. It will place data at the LUN level automatically in fast flash storage when it needs the fastest performance, in Fibre Channel drives for medium performance, and in SATA drives for slower performance. It is simplistic and 3-tier information lifecycle management (ILM) inside an array.

FAST will be deployed across all EMC's storage platforms by the end of 2009. Symmetrix FAST is in beta test now. Clariion and Celerra will enter beta test in the next few weeks. If we take "all of EMC's storage platforms" literally, that means Centera and Atmos will get FAST as well.

FAST v2 will increase granularity to the sub-LUN/volume level and it could be rolled out on Symmetrix V-Max in mid-2010. The implication is that FAST 1 is a bit clumsy and deals with over-large amounts of data. Compellent's automated tiering works at the block level, with Compellent's array software monitoring block activity and so having the plumbing in place to apply block placement policies.

A report in Gestalt IT said that FAST 1 does not support thin provisioning, whereas FAST 2 probably will. The sub-LUN unit moved by FAST 2 could be a 768KB block, which is the size supported by EMC's virtual (thin) provisioning.

Burke said FAST 2 should have a more significant cost-savings impact because less flash would be needed to store hot data.

A good mix of storage tiers in today's Symmetrix was 10 per cent of data in flash, 40 per cent in Fibre Channel and 50 per cent in SATA drives. Burke cited an example of an array with 100 flash drives. Its workload could be carried out by an alternative and more cost-effective array populated with 8 flash drives and 32 SATA drives. This 2-tier structure seemed to be the way Burke sees array design evolving, with systems made entirely of flash drives for speed and SATA for cheap capacity. That would obliterate both Fibre Channel and SAS drives from enterprise storage arrays.

Fibre Channel would go first, with SAS drives replacing their capacity aspect and SSDs their performance aspect. Burke suggested that migration from Fibre Channel to SAS drives could happen in Clariion arrays first of all. With 6Gbit/s SAS appearing we could see our way to a SAS Clariion refresh some time next year.

Interestingly HDS seems to have started down this route with its AMS mid-range arrays getting a SAS backplane, replacing the previous FCAL controller-drive linkage.

There is a potential impact on Seagate here, which supplies more fast enterprise hard disk drives than anyone else. No-one has mentioned a timescale but we might speculate about a 5-year period in which the proportion of fast hard drives in enterprise arrays declines to the single digit level.

Talking about sourcing NAND flash product, Burke said EMC, which currently ships STEC solid state drives (SSDs), is working with potential second sources. Rakers suggest we could see one or more alternative suppliers qualified in the second half of next year. Pliant is one candidate with EMC rumoured to have an investment in that company. STEC also has SAS interface SSDs ready.

We might expect other enterprise array suppliers with SSD storage tiers announced or coming, such as 3PAR, Dell, Fujitsu, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, IBM, NetApp, Oracle/Sun, Pillar and Xiotech, to all follow Compellent and EMC's lead and introduce their own automated data movement across storage tiers between now and the end of next year.

They could also look to have a second source SSD strategy as well. Every storage array supplier might have to fast forward to keep up. ®

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