Flash Storage Offers Fast Path to VDI, Better App Performance

As traditional storage environments hinder application performance and increase latency, enterprises are turning to flash storage to improve performance and implement virtual desktop infrastructure. More widespread use of flash storage, though, may require vendors to be flexible with their pricing.

TripPak Services hit the storage wall about a year ago.

TripPak, a Xerox company serving the trucking industry, began experiencing daily performance issues with its NetApp and EMC arrays. The company's databases, virtual servers and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) taxed storage to its limits. TripPak experienced 200 to 2,000 ms latency for several hours a day across every system in its environment, says David Abbott, the company's IT manager. Outside those hours, latency averaged 4-15 ms.

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The company's workload "generated massive I/O&that was destroying the NetApp each night," Abbott recalls.

TripPak decided to move beyond its conventional storage systems. It found the answer it was looking for in flash technology. Last spring, the company brought on a flash-based storage array from Pure Storage to assume the organization's storage-area network chores.

A beta deployment went into full production in late summer and now runs the company's SQL Server and Oracle databases, which had previously resided on the NetApp and EMC arrays. The Pure Storage array also handles TripPak's virtual servers and virtual desktops. "There were no more latency issues," Abbott reports, noting a 10x to 15x performance boost.

The impact was impressive enough that TripPak decided to tap flash for network attached storage as well. The company acquired a hybrid array from Starboard Storage Systems, which uses a combination of traditional hard drives and flash storage. That array went into production in January.

Flash Storage Has Specific Roles-For Now

Flash's performance edge over hard drives has begun to win over some enterprise IT managers. The numbers tell the story. Kevin Brown, CEO at Coraid, an Ethernet storage vendor that uses both flash and hard drives, says flash drives provide more than 10,000 I/O operations per second (IOPS), while a SATA drive offers 100 IOPS.

While Brown adds that speed comes at a price-a SATA array comes in at $0.40 per gigabyte, while a full-flash array costs something less than $4 per gigabyte-flash vendors use software techniques such as deduplication to make their arrays cost effective.

Analysis: Flash Storage Can Help Some IT Operations, Despite Cost

Organizations opting for flash storage may acquire the technology in several forms: Cards for servers, specialized storage appliances, hybrid storage arrays housing both flash and traditional disk drives, and storage arrays strictly built on flash. Some buyers get assistance from resellers and integrators as they evaluate the choices-but other enterprises question whether the channel has much to offer yet in an emerging market.

Brown says flash storage has specific roles to play in the data center and therefore won't absorb all storage requirements in the near term. "It's a great tool and a fantastic technology that complements different workloads," Brown says. "People want to use flash as an enhancement, either from a caching perspective to turbo charge things or for specific applications."

Flash Storage Effective for VDI Implementation

VDI is one emerging use case for flash storage. Imperial PFS, an insurance premium financing company, adopted flash storage to boost its ongoing virtual desktop infrastructure rollout.

The company, with corporate offices in Kansas City, Mo. and Jersey City, N.J., is converting 30 branch offices from desktops and local servers to thin clients and virtual desktops. Four physical servers now support more than 450 desktops and will eventually back more than 500 desktops once the remaining 10 offices cut over within the next few weeks.

Virtual desktop deployments are subject to crippling boot storms when many users simultaneously log on at the beginning of the workday. Storage is often the bottleneck amid those periodic I/O spikes.

Jason Walker, senior network engineer at Imperial PFS, says only one storage approach he evaluated addressed both the boot-up issue and the other technical challenge of the company's VDI initiative: flash storage. The company ultimately selected Virident's FlashMAX II, a flash storage card.

"The storage can keep ahead of user log on," Walker says. "They can just boot up as fast as they need to. The log on storm doesn't really exist."

Analysis: Channel Partners Help Make Virtual Desktop Infrastructure a Reality

Walker says flash storage is the way to go for VDI deployments, adding that flash will likely turn up in other areas. He cites Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server platforms-and their administrators-as potential beneficiaries of faster storage. "I'm just going to need more," Walker says. "Once they get a taste of flash, it is kind of addicting."

Flash Reduces Latency, Boosts Performance

Boosting application performance was the key factor at Visioneer, a scanner manufacturer based in Pleasanton, Calif.

Walt Thinfen, Visioneer's vice president and CIO, says the company began encountering difficulties after virtualizing many core applications. Latency problems impacted I/O intensive applications, including SAP and Exchange, which support U.S. and worldwide operations in Canada, Europe and Latin America.

"We started having problems with critical business applications. It became very clear to us that we had do something," Thinfen says.

Visioneer, he says, could abandon the virtualized environment-but that would have meant going back to large, application-specific servers. Instead, the company pursued flash. Thinfen says a friend recommended a flash storage appliance from Astute Networks. The company brought in Astute's ViSX G3 appliance for an evaluation and soon moved its SAP R3 production environment to the platform.

"Very quickly, the performance problem that we were having went away," Thinfen says, adding that the SAP bottleneck had been the company's biggest pain point.

ViSX, he says, provided a 1,500 percent read-performance boost on apps such as SAP and Exchange. Faster performance also means Visioneer can hit its backup window. Previously, overnight backups had still been running when the company's European operations were opening for business the next morning.

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As with TripPak and Imperial PFS, Visioneer plans to expand the use of flash storage. "We are actually looking to push it to other pieces of our business," Thinfen says. "As other storage products we have reach three years plus [of age], we are going to be swapping them out for some of the Asute storage."

Channel Impact, Pricing Hurdles Remain for Flash

Resellers and integrators are starting to play a role in flash storage. At TripPak, the company worked with solution providers Trace3 (Irvine, Calif.) and InfoStructure (Littleton, Colo.). In both cases the channel partners helped coordinate TripPak's initial dealings with flash vendors.

Trace3, for example, got TripPak in touch with Pure Storage and other vendors during the company's technology evaluation phase. InfoStructure, meanwhile, helped TripPak obtain a Starboard evaluation array. (InforStructure is a Starboard channel partner.)

Abbott says the company's IT team did the array implementation on its own. He notes that Trace3 personnel worked side-by-side with TripPak "so [we] could learn the array."

Tony Bushell, general manager at Trace3, says nearly all his customers are currently looking at flash, with activity centered around business critical applications and sensitive data.

For its part, Imperial PFS attempted to work with resellers on its project but found them wanting; Walker says the four VARs the company dealt with had little to contribute. "We are on the edge of doing things," Walker says, adding that, when it came to the VARs, "We taught them more than they taught us."

The company's VDI deployment does have some unusual features; for instance the use of persistent virtual desktops that are deleted daily, with the personalization data stored separately. Nor does Imperial PFS rely on shared storage, as many VDI efforts do.

While opinions vary on the utility of the channel, most observers agree that price has been a barrier to broader flash storage adoption.

Abbott says some flash products he has encountered sat at too high a price point. But the Pure Storage array, he adds, provides about a 6-to-1 compression ratio, which put flash within reach. He says the vendor's way of doing deduplication and compression the array "into a price range that made it very affordable."

Jim Damoulakis, chief technology officer at storage consulting firm Glass House Technologies, says Pure Storage and other flash vendors are leveraging deduplication and other forms of compression to reduce the utilization cost per gigabyte. However, those techniques, and their associated overhead, may sacrifice some performance.

If a customer doesn't need the highest possible performance, then it may not matter. "Flash," Damoulakis says, "can start becoming more affordable to companies that may have substantial performance needs, but not necessarily the bleeding edge performance requirements."

John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 20 years. His areas of focus include mobile app development, health IT, cloud computing, government IT and distribution channels. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about network attached storage (nas) in CIO's Network Attached Storage (NAS) Drilldown.

This story, "Flash Storage Offers Fast Path to VDI, Better App Performance" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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