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Violin thrusts vSphere into flash arrays, turns them into servers

VMware OEM deal

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Flash array vendor Violin Memory is turning is all-flash arrays into virtualised servers by embedding vSphere in them.

It has agreed an OEM deal with VMware to run vSphere inside its arrays. Violin's top-end array is the 6616, which uses fast single level cell (SLC) flash with 16TB of raw capacity, 12TB usable, and has two x86 processors looking after the flash memory and its IO load.

Violin already has a deal with Symantec to embed Storage Foundation functionality into its system software and so provide snapshots, cloning, deduplication, asynchronous replication, encryption and thin provisioning.

The company anticipates its arrays being on VMware's hardware compatibility list in a few months, at which point apps that run in VMware virtual machines could run on the Violin Memory arrays.

Violin has received funding from SAP which has its in-memory HANA database product. The way now seems clearer to developing a Violin SAP HANA appliance. We could also see a Hadoop appliance.

Violin's VP of products, Narayan Venkat, said: “By partnering with VMware, we enable our customers to achieve their goal of a fully virtualised data center. This is one of the many steps we’ve taken to apply the benefits of flash to virtualised environments, and create specialised application acceleration appliances like Virtual Database-in-a-box, Private Cloud-in-a-box and VDI-in-a-box.”

In other words, for example, a Violin Memory VDI appliance. But that would need additional processing capacity inside the Violin Memory array. How would that work?

Flying a VDI appliance kite

An ESG lab validation report showed two Violin Memory 6616 flash arrays supporting 10,000 virtual desktops which were run off eight Cisco UCS B200 M2 blade servers. Each server uses two 6-core Xeon 5649 processors.

We could theoretically envisage a single future Violin Memory appliance supporting up to 5,000 virtual desktops by halving this ESG configuration and sticking all the processing and storage elements in one box. The current 6616 is a 3U box with 16TB of SLC flash, 12TB usable, and two X86 processors. We could dream up a thicker box, say 6U, which has four UCS B200 M2 blades in it as well as the current 6616 array's flash cards and processors.

The 6616 is about a year old and uses Toshiba NAND chips. Toshiba by the way has recently announced SSDs using 24nm and 19nm NAND chips.

We could readily envisage a refresh of Violin's NAND chips moving to 2Xnm NAND, enabling it cram more NAND capacity into the same space. Nimbus Data did that with its Gemini refresh of the S-Series all-flash array and bumped TB per rack from 250 to 1,000, and performance from 80,000 to 1 million IOPS (4K, 50:50 read/write).

An equivalent NAND refresh of the 6616 could produce a 64TB raw capacity system which, with boosted flash storage processors, could go past 2 million IOPS.

Let's have a bit of fun and call it a Violin Memory 8000 array which runs vSphere and VMware View and has the additional server blades connected to the flash by an internal PCIe bus. The up to 5,000 virtual desktop devices are hooked up over a LAN, some number of 10GbitE ports say.

This kind of Violin Memory application-running storage/server appliance us surely coming our way in the next few months, say by mid-2013.

Background

Both EMC and DataDirect have talked about running applications directly inside storage arrays. DataDirect runs filesystems inside its arrays in this way. EMC's ex-Information Infrastructure Products president Pat Gelsinger talked of VMAX, VNX and Isilon arrays running apps inside virtual machines running on spare processors or engines inside the arrays.

Gelsinger is now the CEO of VMware, of course. The Violin arrays will compete directly with EMC's coming X arrays, all-flash arrays using its acquired Xtremio technology.

Violin has also demonstrated Windows Server 2012 running on its arrays. Who knows what other operating systems might be supported? Linux has to be a possibility.

We are seeing the emergence of a new class of server, one featuring a bunch of application processors sharing tightly-coupled flash memory, probably deduplicated and compressed flash memory. A look at Nutanix and SimpliVity will show scale-out aspects of this collapsed compute+storage, resurgence of direct-accessed storage box idea.

The traditional server vendors – Dell, HP and IBM, plus the newest mainstream server club member, Cisco – could find themselves outflanked by EMC and Violin and other storage array vendors. The array vendors seem to recognise that server commoditisation means they can take the bull by the horns and cram servers into flash boxes to make supercharged database, OLTP, VDI, data warehouse/big data appliances that leave traditional servers, towing the dead weight of legacy networked disk drive arrays, far far behind. ®

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