October 25, 2014

Fusion-io Steps Into the Flash Array Market with ioN

Solid State Storage Arrays Series

Flash is hot right now, and solid-state storage is transforming every part of IT. From the iPad to the enterprise, every company is looking to figure out how best to deploy solid-state, and how it will transform their applications. Now the darling of the PCI-e card market, Fusion-io is taking its first steps into the enterprise storage array field with “ioN”.

The Solid State Storage Array Market

The first solid-state storage arrays, introduced two decades ago, were expensive devices to support the needs of specialized applications. Widespread ability of NAND flash chips in the last decade has brought in that market substantially, to the point that “flash” has become synonymous with “solid-state storage” in the minds of many buyers.

Today’s solid-state storage array market reflects this diversity of offerings. Broadly-speaking, there are four types of “solid-state storage arrays” on the market today:

  1. Hybrid flash-and-disk arrays, usually with automated tiering (e.g. Nimble, Tintri, every old-school array maker)
  2. All-SSD “disk alternative” arrays for mainstream applications (e.g. Whiptail Invicta, Pure Storage, Nimbus Data, GreenBytes, plus lots of retrofits)
  3. Ultra-performance arrays with non-SSD flash or DRAM for sensitive applications (e.g. Violin Memory, TMS, Kaminario, Whiptail Accela)
  4. Specialized arrays for unique applications (e.g. SolidFire, Clustrix)

Note: although I have given some examples to illustrate my market segments, this is by no means an exhaustive list of products. Indeed, the flash array market is incredibly crowded and dynamic. My apologies in advance if your favorite company isn’t listed or you don’t agree with my classification!

The easiest way to spot the difference between these devices is to step back from their marketing materials and consider the technical capabilities of the box. Any array that uses SSDs is going to suffer in terms of performance, making it a “disk alternative” or hybrid device. Similarly, it’s difficult (though not impossible) to build a disk alternative out of PCI express cards.

Regardless of how you slice the market, everyone agrees that certain devices are simply not competitive with others. No buyer would cross-shop TMS and Tintri, and SolidFire is appealing to a different customer than Whiptail. It will become obvious in a moment why I am bringing all of this up.

Introducing Fusion-io

Somehow, Fusion-io has become the most-famous storage company. Maybe it’s the geek cool of their famous Chief Scientist, but I’d rather credit their awesome marketing efforts. Fusion-io has demonstrated an uncanny ability to set a conference of techies buzzing.

Cards like these drive geeks crazy

The core offering from Fusion-io is a line of PCIe flash memory cards. Although sometimes referred to as PCIe SSDs, their ioDrive line is technically quite different. Fusion-io uses direct memory access (a technique they refer to as “ioMemory”) to present storage directly to applications and operating systems. Their cards often pretend to be disk drives, but they aren’t.

PCIe cards offer amazing levels of performance, with microsecond latency and millions of IOPS. But all this performance is “stranded” inside a single server, and these cards aren’t cheap. So Fusion-io has long worked to broaden the market for their cards through resellers, integrators, and OEM agreements. Companies like Kaminario, Nutanix, HP, IBM, and many more sell solutions built around the ioDrive product line.

Fusion-io has also broadened into the software space, with ioTurbine and directCache enabling broader application support. And aptly-named acquisition, ioTurbine is one of the better ways to apply PCIe storage to virtual server workloads. directCache, in contrast, transforms an ioDrive card into a massive write-through cache. But neither product is truly “shared storage” outside the physical machine containing the hardware.

Fusion-io ioN Array Software

Enter ioN, Fusion-io’s shared storage solution. ioN is software that transforms commodity server hardware into a high-performance storage array. An ioN flash appliance would sit in the “ultra-performance” market segment, competing with Violin and TMS.

This sounds like a bold move for Fusion-io, since many of their partner companies have their own storage array offerings. But Fusion-io isn’t introducing a directly-competitive array offering of their own. Rather, they are shipping software and specifications for an array that an OEM, a reseller, or even an end user could build for themselves. This mostly keeps them out of hot water, though Kaminario might be feeling a bit warm.

This Fusion-io illustration shows the core ioN components

ioN includes data management software integrated with the company’s existing Virtual Storage Layer (VSL) software, which allows ioMemory cards to appear as conventional block storage devices. It also packages a SCSI storage target allowing iSCSI, Fibre Channel, and InfiniBand cards to accept client (initiator, in SCSI terms) connections.

The ioN interface is incredibly simple

The ioN Data Accelerator package includes RAID for reliability (JBOD, RAID-0, and RAID-10) and node clustering for high availability. Management is through a GUI, CLI, SMI-S, or SNMP, and definitely skews toward simplicity at this point.

The software is cheap, too, with a $3,900 list price. It’s possible to build a simple but speedy ioN array for under $20k using a single ioDrive2 card, though most buyers would want much more than that.

Stephen’s Stance

Fusion-io had to “step outside the server” eventually. Although the ioN product does not move the company boldly forward, it is a step in the right direction. It shouldn’t annoy too many partners, either. ioN gives Fusion-io a place at the ultra-performance array table, especially important in light of EMC’s XtremIO purchase. Faced with the prospect of commoditization, Fusion-io is wise to respond with software-based differentiators that leverage the unique capabilities of their ioMemory architecture.

Disclaimer: Fusion-io has never sponsored Tech Field Day or given me anything of value. I did attend their wild Interop party with Woz and Captain Crunch in 2010 and walked away with a plush monkey, but decided against pocketing an ioDrive card or the keys to their rad VW Microbus.

Mr. Crunchman, Me, a plush monkey, and Josh Welling.
I believe there’s some kind of awesome Fusion-io demo in the background.

  • http://twitter.com/DeepStorageNet Howard Marks

    It’s interesting that they’re using the VSL and making the ioDrive look like an SSD rather than managing that higher in the stack. Wonder if they’re using a Linux kernel, and the same disk IO stack they want people to dump for other applications.

    Makes you go hum

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    Fusion-io wouldn’t tell me which third-party components they’re using, but I sincerely hope they didn’t write their own SCSI target! I imagine it’s Linux like many others, since they didn’t bite when I started talking about Nexenta!