Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/23/hp_smart_caching/

HP and EMC battle for the soul of server storage

Donatelli repels Gelsinger storage invasion

By Chris Mellor

Posted in Storage, 23rd March 2012 10:03 GMT

There is a fight going on for the soul of server storage and HP and EMC are in the front line trenches getting ready for all-out marketing war.

HP's strategy depends upon smartening up its ProLiant servers. The eighth generation ProLiant is turbo-charging its storage with a Smart Array containing solid state drives and Smart Caching. EX-EMCer David Donatelli's HP ISS organisation is going head-to-head with newish EMC exec Pat Gelsinger's EMC storage operation. Can HP's Donatelli beat Gelsinger in the end-to-end server-to-array storage business?

Smart storage is part of the general gen 8 ProLiant "smart movement": "Servers are so smart that they are going to virtually take care of themselves," as Mark Potter, HP's ISS general manager said.

HP's Smart portfolio includes Smart Operations, Smart Updates, Smart Energy and Smart real time tuning. It also includes two Smart storage items: the Smart Array controllers and Smart Caching, which both feature solid state storage to solve the disk I/O bottleneck problem, as well as Smart Data Services software to use this hardware.

David Donatelli

HP's David Donatelli

The background here is that HP is working on using flash storage in its servers as EMC has done with its VFCache and which Dell is intending to to do. The basic idea is to have the data that server apps need in the local flash cache when it is needed so that apps complete much. much faster.

How is HP going to do this?

An HP Connect blog post states: "The HP [Gen8] ProLiant servers includes an 6G embedded SAS controller with 6X[1] the performance of previous generation controllers that moves from traditional SAS 15k hard drives to SAS SSD which in turn results in to a ~60x[2] performance boost."

The [1] and [2] references are to:

1 6X improved storage performance: testing of the new Smart Array controllers compared to the current generation Smart Array controllers in a RAID 6 configuration; Internal HP Lab testing.
2 Compared a G6/7 Smart Array (P411) with 15K SAS hard drives to the Gen8 Smart Array (P420) with 8 SSDs; Internal HP Lab testing.

The summary at the end of this blog post says: "The HP ProLiant Gen8 Servers addresses the #1 performance bottleneck: storage. Their radical redesign unifies compute and storage and delivers all-in-one platforms optimised for storage workload demands while protecting critical data."

HP's marketing sub-text is: "Get thee gone, Gelsinger."

Also, El Reg's feelers into HP suggest that HP is not impressed with EMC's VFCache, viewing it as having clunky filter drivers, no hypervisor drivers, and being non-integrated with back-end drive arrays, in addition to only working with Fibre Channel data feeds. It's obviously a first generation product which will help validate an emerging market whose characteristics are not yet clear.

Smart Storage engineering

Our understanding is that a Smart Storage engineering unit inside HP is producing a ProLiant server flash cache and software that will be integrated with back-end arrays. The end-to-end and tiered storage channel will operate in a co-ordinated way so that as data gets progressively hotter it moves up the tiers and, as it cools, it moves down them. This is called Dynamic Workload Acceleration and there is an HP blog about the ideas behind it here.

Talking about gen 8 ProLiants and I/O performance gaps, the blog says: "[One] performance gap is in the area of database applications. In order to achieve industry leading benchmark numbers, HP matches a number of hard drives to balance the load of ever-increasing processor and memory speeds. In the year 2000, we used 180 spindles. In 2009 we used over 1,000 spindles. For Gen 8, the number goes well past 2,000!

"We had to change the game, and that game changer is Solid State. With Gen8 solid state optimised Smart Array controllers, HP has been able to achieve maximum performance with less than 100 SSDs. … The new Smart Array for Gen 8 delivers more than 4 times the I/O rate for read operations and more than 6 times the IOP rate for database workloads. The Gen 8 Smart Array with solid state drives is sixty times faster than the previous generation controller with traditional hard drives.

"And with industry leading PCI express Gen 3 support, bandwidth is up more than 85 per cent."

Then things get even more interesting...

The blog continues:

... Smart Data Services that HP has delivered with its Gen 8 storage products. These services lay the groundwork for HP’s storage to dynamically accelerate workloads and protect your data using integrated smart analytics and workload-aware intelligence. This HP unique technology distributes intelligence throughout the server platform so that the storage system can dynamically identify workloads and optimise performance throughout the system.

This capability orchestrates optimising performance throughout the storage, memory and network systems.

With Smart Data Services in place, you’ll benefit from great new innovation such as the SSD wear gauge that predicts the lifespan of SSDs as well as future solid state acceleration technologies that dynamically optimise the performance of your local and external storage.

HP could see its customers becoming born-again EMC customers

It seems obvious that HP's storage tiers will include a Smart Cache (flash) in the servers, disk in the servers, and SSDs and hard disk drives in the back-end arrays. There may be an intervening shared-access flash storage product as well. There may well be an either-or relationship between a server's direct-access disks and a shared back-end array, be it file or block.

End-to-end data tiering

The back-end arrays will – as they must – include the 3PAR arrays and maybe the P4000s for block storage, and the P400, X1000, X3000 and X5000 filer boxes. The end-to-end storage system will ensure the requisite hottest data is in the server's Smart Cache using workload-aware intelligence. This suggests that the data-tiering algorithm knows about – or is told by some other software about – the workloads that a server is running.

For example, there could be specific data-caching strategies for ESX and Hyper-V hypervisors and virtual machines (VMs) as well as for popular operating systems and apps in these VMs, such as SQL Server, Oracle and SharePoint.

We're told that: "This HP-unique storage technology in next-generation ProLiant servers helps you achieve six times higher performance for transactional workloads and 50 per cent more performance for video streaming applications, compared to previous generations." That's what we have now, without the end-to-end Smart Caching technology that's coming. We should expect even greater performance improvements with that.

We are not seeing this fancy new end-to-end, flash cached Smart Storage co-ordinated in the back-end arrays in gen 8 servers and HP storage arrays yet. El Reg understands that this is partly because it has to be tested and validated against the vast range of HP hardware and software with which ProLiants integrate and interoperate, such as HP's management software, as well as the Hyper-V and ESX hypervisors.

Then there's the array controller software development needed to tier data across these storage-array-to-server tiers. This takes time. There's also the time needed to test it against the other HP hardware and software products that will integrate and interoperate with it.

TPC-C puzzle

There is more of HP's thinking in a DWA brochure (PDF). This brochure includes this claim: "Recently, this technology helped HP ProLiant achieve the No 1 TPC-C benchmark in the industry." As we note here, there is no number 1 ranking for HP in the published TPC-C benchmarks, leaving El reg storage desk puzzled – and with a few questions to ask HP. The highest HP TPC-C result is a 2007 Integrity Superdome-Itanium system, which achieved 4.092,799 tpmCs and is ranked at sixth in the "all results" tpcC charts. That's hardly "recent". There is a ProLiant G7 server result from late 2010 and that doesn't qualify as "recent" in our book either.

Pat Gelsinger

EMC's Pat Gelsinger

Getting back to the server storage, no way does HP want to see its servers invaded with EMC VFCache cards. Donatelli's Smart Storage has to repel Gelsinger's flash cards from HP's customer base and cement the use of HP arrays with HP servers. To parrot a Dell marketing cry, HP servers and HP storage are going to be "better together".

If Donatelli fails, and HP's server customers see benefits in sexing up their ProLiants with VFCache, then, as Gelsinger's part of EMC links VFCache closer and closer to EMC's coming shared flash array (Thunder) and to EMC's back-end arrays like VNX and VMAX, EMC storage could invade HP's base. HP could see its customers becoming born-again EMC customers.

You can imagine Donatelli saying: "Not on my watch!" HP's marketing subtext is "Get thee gone, Gelsinger."

This really is a fight for the soul of server storage.

The winner of this fight for the storage soul of the HP customer base will be the supplier who best links HP server flash storage to back-end array storage arrays and delivers the most perceived server application performance enhancements.

EMC has to win this fight by the way. If one server-storage vendor locks EMC out of its base by closely integrating server flash and back-end arrays to boost server app performance better than a stand-alone array vendor – then others, like Dell and IBM, can do it. Fortunately EMC has VMWare in its box of tricks and can use VMware's ESX to link anybody's servers + VFCache to its back-end arrays.

What about other stand-alone storage array vendors? Yes, that means NetApp at the top of the list. It had better pre-empt HP's efforts, as EMC has done, because once HP has linked its arrays to its servers in this way it will be damned hard to make inroads against it.

This really is a fight for the soul of server storage.

HP has the servers and will have the flash and will have the data tiering. EMC has the flash and will have the tiering. Which one of the two suppliers will get your vote? ®