Is storage still relevant?

storage field day

Disclosure: I was invited by GestaltIT as a delegate to their Storage Field Day 19 event from Jan 22-24, 2020 in the Silicon Valley CA. My expenses, travel, accommodation and conference fees were covered by GestaltIT, the organizer. I was not obligated to blog or promote the vendors’ technologies. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views.

Is storage still relevant in today’s cloud and serverless environments? At Storage Field Day 19 we spent several hours with Western Digital, and heard from ten different presenters. Did they show us that storage is still relevant?

Hardware Must Innovate for Software to Innovate

I think the industry often forgets that software innovation is impossible without hardware innovation. We’ve seen some pretty amazing hardware innovations over the last decade or so, and hardware companies are still at it.

You may be asking: how is an old hardware company able to keep up, let alone still be innovating? Well, Western Digital has 50 years of storage experience, and they are still innovating. Their heritage is highlighted in this slide.

Western Digital’s 50 year heritage via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lqw3_HgiA9o

Western Digital is looking at how to solve the data storage challenges for emerging workloads. They already have tons of experience, so they know that the data must be stored, and that more data is being created now than ever before.

More data is being created today than ever before, and it all needs to be stored so it is available to have compute applied to it. Compute is what turns the data is turned into actionable information. But there is so much data now – how should it get stored? How will it be accessed? It’s becoming pretty obvious that the old ways of doing this will not be performant, or maybe not even scalable enough.

One workload they talked about throughout many of the presentations was video. Just think about what kinds of devices that now create streams of video. IoT devices, survellance cameras, cars, the general public, etc. Much of the new types of streaming video is being created at the edge. The edge cases are so diverse that even our understanding of “edge” may be antiquated.

So is storage still relevant? Maybe not the type I came up on – SANs and NASs. But the next evolution of storage has never been more relevant than now.

Composable Infrastructure

Western Digital also discussed composable infrastructure, and how technologies such as NVMe over Fabric make composable infrastructure possible. Don’t worry if you have no idea what I’m talking about – the standards for NVMe over Fabric weren’t pulled together until 2014, and the standard became real in 2016. Also, hardware standard boards are so peculiar – they don’t use the NVMe acronym, they use “NVM Express”. This makes it hard to find primary source information, so keep that in mind when you’re googling.

What can NVMe over Fabric do for composable infrastructure? First, let’s answer why would you need composable infrastructure?

Western Digital’s Scott Hamiliton walked us through this. First of all, new types of applications like machine learning and deep learning need the data to be close to where the compute is happening. Even after considering tradeoffs that must be made because of data gravity, traditional architecture slows things down because resources are locked in that traditional stack.

Composable infrastructure takes the resources trapped in traditional infrastructure, breaks them up and disaggregates them. After that’s done, the resources can be recreated into the leanest combination possible for a workload, virtually composed, creating a new type of logical server. The beauty is this can then be modified based on the dynamics of a workload.

According to Hamiliton, Western Digital believes NVMe will the foundation of next-gen infrastructures, and that eventually ethernet will be the universal backplane. It was an interesting session, check it out for yourself below.

Western Digital at Tech Field Day via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuRI1TlBJgA

Zoned Storage

Western Digital is also championing the Zoned Storage initiative. This will be part of the NVMe standard. Zoned Storage creates an address space on disk (HDD or SSD) that is divided into zones. Data must be written sequentially to a zone, and can’t be overwritten sequentially. Here’s Western Digital’s explanation:

[Zoned Storage] involves the ability to store and retrieve information using shingled magnetic recording (SMR) in hard disk drives (HDDs) to increase the storage density and its companion technology called Zoned Name Spaces in solid state drives (SSDs).

via https://www.westerndigital.com/company/innovations/zoned-storage

Why does the industry need this? According to Swapna Yasarapu, Sr. Director of Product Marketing for Western Digital’s Data Center Business Unit, we’re moving into an era where large portions of unstructured data are being created. All of this data can’t be stored via traditional methods. Additionally, unstructured streams come from IoT edge devices, video, smart video, telemetry, and various other end devices. Many of these streams must be written sequentially to unlock the information the data contains.

Finally, this is an open source initiative that will help write this data in a more practical way for these types of data streams to HDDs and SSDs.

Watch the entire presentation here:

Acronyms as an innovation indicator

One way I can tell when there is innovation is when I come across acronyms I don’t know. After 3 years focusing on virtualization hardware, I found myself having a hard time keeping up with the acronyms thrown at us during the presentations.

The good news is that some of these technologies are brand new. So much for storage being old school! Plus, can you imagine what apps are waiting to be written on these new architectures that have yet to be built?

Here are the acronyms I didn’t know. How many can you define?

  • TMR: tunneling magnetoresistance
  • TPI: Track Per Inch (disk density)
  • PZT: Piezoelectric actuator (see this earlier Storage Field Day post)
  • VCM: Voice Coil Motor (see this video )
  • SMR: Shingled Magnetic Recording
  • SSA: Solid State Array
  • ZBC: SCSI Zoned Block Commands
  • ZAC: Zoned ATA Commands
  • ZNS: Zoned Named Storage

Is Storage Still Relevant? Final thoughts

I think you know my answer on the questions is storage still relevant: of course! We are just beginning to create the standards that will issue in the real digital transformation, so there is plenty of time to catch up.

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