The enterprise flash storage array market, though not yet crowded, is definitely lively. After a wave of SSD’s retrofitted into disk arrays joined a cadre of purpose-built devices, we’re getting to the point where finally we have some compelling and competitive products. Out today is another flash start up: Skyera’s passel of SandForce engineers have cooked up an enterprise array integrated like no other.
From SandForce to Skyera
Let’s start with the company news!
Skyera is a new company headed by the co-founder and chief architect of SandForce. Long the darlings of the enthusiast space, SandForce was acquired by LSI at the beginning of this year. The company was known for its SSD controllers, which integrated compression and RAID-like technology to achieve high levels of reliability and performance from inexpensive MLC flash chips.
In some ways, Skyera is a logical extension of this SandForce heritage. The new company has created an integrated storage array optimized to take advantage of the least expensive MLC flash chips on the market. Yet the Skyera Skyhawk (still called “UNO” in my briefing this month) is an enterprise storage array offering high performance as well as low cost.
In addition to SandForce, Skyera has drawn executives from enterprise networking (Cisco, Andiamo), data protection (EVault, Zetta), flash (Micron, PNY, STEC), and enterprise storage (Brocade, HDS). This is to say that the executive team isn’t just a bunch of chip heads but have a broad range of experience across the enterprise.
Skyera Skyhawk: Integrated Flash Architecture
Skyera’s first product is the Skyhawk, an integrated storage array packing massive capacity thanks to inexpensive MLC flash chips. The Skyhawk scales to 44 TB and 1 million IOPS with 40 Gigabit Ethernet ports in one half-depth rack unit with “less than 800 W” of power consumption. And the Skyhawk is priced as low as $3 per GB of usable capacity. Those are industry-leading figures, assuming Skyera can deliver on their promises.
The twin secrets of the Skyera Skyhawk are cheap consumer-grade flash memory and complete system integration. There are no SAS SSDs or PCIe cards here: Skyera designed their own flash controller (complete with DSP and ECC) to allow their system controller direct access to each individual flash block. It was only a matter of time before a truly-integrated enterprise flash array appeared, but it takes some serious engineering talent to pull this off.
The entire Skyhawk system is focused on extracting performance and reliability from cheap, high-capacity consumer-grade 20 nm-class cMLC flash chips. These parts have been dismissed as hopeless by most enterprise array vendors, and even consumers are skittish about their limited write cycles.
But Skyera promises they can make good use of cMLC by treating the whole array as a single pool of storage, wear-levelling across every cell of every chip in the system. This would be difficult with SSDs, since the controllers on-board would “override” decisions of the system. But a completely integrated system like the Skyera Skyhawk makes this possible.
The Skyhawk is a standalone system and is available in three configurations (all configurations list uncompressed, usable capacity):
- 12 TB for just under $50k
- 22 TB for around $75k
- 44 TB for just over $130k
Skyera promises the Skyhawk will be available for early testers in Q3 of 2012, with a general availability (GA) date in the first quarter of 2013.
What Makes One Solid-State Array Different From the Rest?
Although solid-state storage arrays have been around for decades, the introduction of NAND flash memory really kicked things into high gear. Suddenly it was possible to create a compelling storage array that took advantage of massive performance gains from solid-state storage, or perhaps didn’t use spinning disks at all!
But not all solid-state storage arrays are created equal. Many are simply existing hard disk drive-based enterprise storage arrays retrofitted with SSDs. This stands in stark contrast to the few that were designed from the ground up with SSD, PCIe flash, or DRAM in mind. There are also a number of interesting hybrid storage arrays that use both disk and flash chips.
It is difficult to understand and intelligently discuss this vast array of differing products, so I can only imagine what the uninitiated customer must feel when confronted with so many new names and similar claims. After all, every solid-state storage array vendor brags about massive performance, multitudes of IOPS, and incredible power savings.
Truth be told, many of the core differences are philosophical and architectural and don’t matter at all when the rubber meets the road. For example, although some vendors get kicked around for using “consumer grade” MLC SSDs, their arrays often perform fabulously, belying their pedestrian roots. Similarly, even some high-end purpose built arrays are unable to keep up with a mainstream offering like, say, a Nimbus Data S-Class.
The Next Step for Skyera
All this is to say that it takes a lot more than a good architecture to deliver a compelling product. This will be the next challenge for companies like Skyera: They must prove that they can deliver reliability, flexibility, and manageability in addition to extreme performance.
As for the product, Skyera Skyhawk includes some great technology currently:
- In-line compression/deduplication, true to the company’s SandForce roots
- AES encryption of data at rest
- Snapshots and volume clones (How many? How often?)
- Quality of Service (I’m not sure exactly what this means in practice)
- Thin provisioning and dynamic LUN resizing
- Multipath support (I would love to know more details!)
- 40x 1 GbE ports plus 3x 10 GbE ports (I believe there is an integrated Ethernet switch, so I wonder about oversubscription of these ports)
Going forward, I’d like to see Skyera add more storage features:
- Listing with the Windows and VMware compatibility programs (and then Red Hat, Oracle, and the rest)
- Support for VMware VAAI and Microsoft ODX
- High availability configurations with true “lose anything and keep going” capability
- Online system upgrades
- Scale-out or scale-up (or both!)
- Data replication
- Backup application integration
Skyera is heading in this direction, but it’s far too early in their story to know if they can pull it off. They need to engineer a system, not just aggregate some NAND flash chips. They also must develop a company, with sales, support, financing, and (yes) PR and marketing to get some Skyhawks sold. This is no small task for any company.
I love the Skyera idea: An integrated array not just designed for flash but designed without the “crutches” of SSD. The world of enterprise storage needed a kick in the pants, and flash is it. It’s exciting to witness real innovation!
Disclaimer: I was briefed by Skyera shortly ahead of this launch. However, I have no other business with the company at present. Also, the company changed the product name from “UNO” to “Skyhawk” after my briefing, so this article has been updated to reflect that change.
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