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Data Center Challenges and Technology Advances Revealed at Flash Memory Summit 2018

If you want to get waist-deep in the technologies that will impact the data centers of tomorrow, the Flash Memory Summit 2018 (FMS) held this week in Santa Clara is the place to do it. This is where the flash industry gets its geek on and everyone on the exhibit floor speaks bits and bytes. However, there is no better place to learn about advances in flash memory that are sure to show up in products in the very near future and drive further advances in data center infrastructure.

Flash Memory Summit logoKey themes at the conference include:

  • Processing and storing ever growing amounts of data is becoming more and more challenging. Faster connections and higher capacity drives are coming but are not the whole answer. We need to completely rethink data center architecture to meet these challenges.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning are expanding beyond their traditional high-performance computing research environments and into the enterprise.
  • Processing must be moved closer to—and perhaps even into—storage.

Multiple approaches to addressing these challenges were championed at the conference that range from composable infrastructure to computational storage. Some of these solutions will complement one another. Others will compete with one another for mindshare.

NVMe and NVMe-oF Get Real

For the near term, NVMe and NVMe over Fabrics (NVMe-oF) are clear mindshare winners. NVMe is rapidly becoming the primary protocol for connecting controllers to storage devices. A clear majority of product announcements involved NVMe.

WD Brings HDDs into the NVMe World

Western Digital announced the OpenFlex™ architecture and storage products. OpenFlex speaks NVMe-oF across an Ethernet network. In concert with OpenFlex, WD announced Kingfish™, an open API for orchestrating and managing OpenFlex™ infrastructures.

Western Digital is the “anchor tenant” for OpenFlex with a total of seventeen (17) data center hardware and software vendors listed as launch partners in the press release. Notably, WD’s NVMe-oF attached 1U storage device provides up to 168TB of HDD capacity. That’s right – the OpenFlex D3000 is filled with hard disk drives.

While NVMe’s primary use case it to connect to flash memory and emerging ultra-fast memory, companies still want their HDDs. Using Western Digital, organizations can have their NVMe and still get the lower cost HDDs they want.

Gen-Z Composable Infrastructure Standard Gains Momentum

The emerging Gen-Z as a memory-centric architecture is designed for nanosecond latencies. Since last year’s FMS, Gen-Z has made significant progress toward this objective. Consider:

  • The consortium publicly released the Gen-Z Core Specification 1.0 on February 13, 2018. Agreement upon a set of 1.0 standards is a critical milestone in the adoption of any new standard. The fact that the consortium’s 54 members agreed to it suggest broad industry adoption.
  • Intel’s adoption of the SFF-TA-1002 “Gen-Z” universal connector for its “Ruler” SSDs reflects increased adoption of the Gen-Z standards. Making this announcement notable is that Intel is NOT currently a member of the Gen-Z consortium which indicates that Gen-Z standards are gaining momentum even outside of the consortium.
  • The Gen-Z booth included a working Gen-Z connection between a server and a removable DRAM module in another enclosure. This is the first example of a processor being able to use DRAM that is not local to the processor but is instead coming out of a composable pool. This is a concept similar to how companies access shared storage in today’s NAS and SAN environments.

Other Notable FMS Announcements

Many other innovative solutions to data center challenges were also made at the FMS 2018 which included:

  • Solarflare NVMe over TCP enables rapid low-latency data movement over standard Ethernet networks.
  • ScaleFlux computational storage avoids the need to move the data by integrating FPGA-based computation into storage devices.
  • Intel’s announcement of its 660P Series of SSDs that employ quad level cell (QLC) technology. QLC stores more data in less space and at a lower cost.

Recommendations

Based on the impressive progress we observed at Flash Memory Summit 2018, we can reaffirm the recommendations we made coming out of last year’s summit…

  • Enterprise technologists should plan technology refreshes through 2020 around NVMe and NVMe-oF. Data center architects and application owners should seek 10:1 improvements in performance, and a similar jump in data center efficiency.
  • Beyond 2020, enterprise technologists should plan their technology refreshes around a composable data centric architecture. Data center architects should track the development of the Gen-Z ecosystem as a possible foundation for their next-generation data centers.
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Ken Clipperton

About Ken Clipperton

Ken Clipperton is a Managing Analyst at DCIG, a group of analysts with IT industry expertise who provide informed, insightful, third party analysis and commentary on IT hardware, software and services. Within the data center, DCIG has a special focus on the enterprise data storage and electronically stored information (ESI) industries.

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