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Is Every Flash Array Truly Disruptive?

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They are fast. I’m sure you’ve heard a flash vendor say the following: “This is disruptive!” While this is true in a few cases, there’s a more important element often missing in the conversation: Is the disruption you’re selling positive for my business?

Often the claim is made that a product will disrupt the way we use an existing technology. Of course! Anything other than an upgrade of an existing asset brings a level of disruption. If the business doesn’t receive a holistic benefit, the technology is really just an upgrade or at worst intrusive. I’ve experienced “disruptions” that were positive, negative and some that were positive – eventually. Sadly, manufacturers of new products marketed as “disruptive” rarely provide a roadmap that clearly shows how a consumer of that technology can truly innovate and transform their entire business in a positive way… the value is often speculative and eventual. Potentially transformative technologies must bring along with them improved processes, integrations and generally make our lives easier. There is a clear industry learning curve with anything disruptive that can delay business-wide improvements. Why? Because there isn’t a complete solution, only a point solution.

Early in my work with VMware I was assigned to assist global outsourcers with implementing server virtualization. This was a classic example of a disruptive technology. There were indisputable benefits that helped customers reduce cost and streamline operations, in the same way that flash arrays are indisputably faster and easier to manage. As I worked with these companies who went from a few hundred VMs to a few hundred thousand VMs over the course of just 18-24 months there was a lesson that became obvious. The disruptive technology was good by itself, but to fully realize the value there were issues that had to be addressed: integration, workflow tools, management and monitoring interfaces, interfaces to existing infrastructure components, etc. I spent a good deal of time working with these customers to submit an endless list of feature requests to support hardware, networking and systems management tools.

Where am I going with this? A new technology can be obviously valuable. It’s easy to look at a “game changer” tech and understand that it will benefit the business. The challenge is to identify how it will fully benefit the business. In the case of server virtualization there were a lot of questions that remained to be answered as the technology matured. The full value to the business was largely speculative, and dependent on large amounts of integrations that did not exist. Today we have flash storage – another technology that is obviously valuable. The challenge that IT decision makers have is how to evaluate the multiple players in that space and understand where the full value comes from rather than relying on promises or speculative value.

IT purchase decisions spring from identifying a need that isn’t satisfied with the current infrastructure. What’s the problem? Disruptive technologies and the associated speculative value of them have a tendency to disrupt the decision process as much as they will IT operations.

For instance, let’s say a CIO’s issue is that a particular database or application is underperforming due to storage latency. Flash is most likely an easy fix. It is disruptive in that it changes the current equations around cost, implementation, management, performance, etc. Many customers in this position scour the market and find a flash array that is good enough to satisfy the needs of the single problem. There is something missing, though. Flash technology also has the potential to transform businesses – but only if it is integrated with the entire ecosystem of technologies in use. We have the opportunity to improve the app and the business with the same decision. Flash storage, properly implemented, can achieve benefits that are difficult or impossible with other traditional or even hybrid platforms.

1. We can leverage metadata management technologies to reduce storage sprawl – an average database has five copies somewhere in the enterprise for development, analytics or business continuity. Virtual copies reduce cost and complexity, and should be a metadata operation rather than consume expensive flash.
2. Use management integrations to streamline business processes. Put the control of database copying into the hands of the DBAs. Give virtualization admins control of storage provisioning, as data reduction technologies are incredibly effective for VMs. This lets storage admins work on bigger issues and the phone rings less frequently. It can be hard to reach this point politically, but giving control of lower level operations to the IT consumer is a huge cost savings to the storage group and application owners.
3. Make complicated tasks like replicating virtual environments to a business continuity site simple, without additional effort from the storage team or complexity.
4. Leverage metadata and RAM in storage controllers to do the heavy lifting of redundant operations like cloning and copies without impacting production performance. If you’re staging or de-staging metadata to disk or NVRAM, the underlying flash is going to be busy – or at least busier. Performing this operation purely in RAM in the controller lets the storage and application teams perform maintenance operations during business hours without production impact because it doesn’t increase load on the physical flash due to constant staging and de-staging. Quality of life and overtime reductions have a direct impact on the bottom line and can increase usable budget over time.
5. The consistency of performance that the right flash architecture provides enables ideas that we have considered for years but never quite had the tools or infrastructure to accomplish – namely service catalogs. Making IT operations like storage and server provisioning self-service is a fast way to reduce cost, lower risk and improve agility. It is the reason tech shops outsource and a benefit that can easily be owned.

To put it in a nutshell, the evaluation process for flash should be based on where the business is going rather than where an application is going. This is a challenge for most flash vendors in that they develop only an array – yes, an easy to manage array with basic integrations to VMware, replication, etc. – but there are no enterprise level integrations for virtualization, database, and enterprise applications and workflows. This puts buyers in the positon that I found myself in with large consumers of VMware in the early days, namely an endless stream of feature and integration requests that delayed the realization of the full value of that disruptive technology for months or years.

This is exactly why I love working at EMC with the XtremIO all flash array. The integrations and solutions are already there. There are integrations that enable a service catalog at almost zero additional cost. EMC has solutions that allow businesses to clone, copy and perform maintenance during business hours without impacting production workloads. (Believe me, this is unique. If you evaluate a flash vendor please run a heavy workload such as the IDC suggested vdbench kit against an array and monitor how performance changes when you start taking a snapshot every 5-10 minutes.) We have solutions that integrate with enterprise applications like Sharepoint, Exchange, SQL and Oracle so that you realize the full value of the disruption immediately. These tools put the power of repetitive and low level operations into the hands of application administrators rather than a handful of overworked storage admins.

Every customer will always have a pressing need. The challenge technologists face is not solving that need but rather solving it in a way that adds additional value to the business and provides a roadmap to achieving even more value. This makes it easier to get approval from the CFO to make the changes that the business demands. Having a clear roadmap to how flash can be transformative to your business is critical, and that is exactly why EMC stands alone as truly disruptive in the flash market. The integrations and tools are already built and ready to go – your only limit is how quickly you want to implement the tools and generate those savings.

As part of your evaluation process I’d suggest not just looking at XtemIO, or an all flash VMAX. Check out EMC’s AppSync, ViPR controller, and the Virtual Storage Integrator. One of these products is bundled with XtremIO to reduce costs and allow you to experiment with its transformative capabilities; the other two are available at no cost. These have already helped thousands of customers realize the full benefit of flash technology rather than just promising speculative benefits or reducing the volume of calls coming from a DBA or application owner. Ultimately a disruptive technology should change the business, not just storage. And it can! Broadening the conversation around what can be done with flash rather than what might be done with flash makes for a better buying decision and a more valuable and future proof infrastructure.

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