Data Center Visit – Cloud Provider vs. Converged Storage

Our latest data center visit was to a Texas based cloud provider focused on providing compute and hosting services. While they are one of the largest providers in the market, what makes them unique is their security. They provide one of the most secure hosting environments in the world, and market that fact. Leading with security puts a lot of pressure on IT. Talk about being the target of attacks! You might as well paint a hacking bullseye on your chest. But, so far hackers have not beaten this provider’s countermeasures.

We make it a point to visit as many production data centers as possible. It allows us to verify what we are seeing in the Storage Switzerland and vendor labs. It also allows us to provide some guidance to the IT professionals that make our site so popular. If you'd like us to visit to discuss your storage or data protection challenges fill out the form at the bottom of this entry and we will do our best to make it happen. In the coming weeks we are going to be in Portland, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago and London.

While this provider has made a name for itself as a secure location for hosting apps, they still need to be competitive. Like all cloud providers, they need to be able to deliver cost effective environments to their clients. They also need to provide an environment that performs well and is as reliable as the customer’s own data center, a competitive situation to say the least.

The Lure of Converged Storage

From a storage perspective, this provider is focused on density and low latency more so than IOPS. They need to be able to squeeze as much capacity and performance as possible into as little space as possible. For this reason, they were attracted to the converged / hyper-converged solutions that have become popular on the market.

Their basic concerns are: can convergence be delivered safely and meet performance demands? They were confident that converged storage would meet the density demand by essentially eliminating storage controllers and storage shelves.

Interestingly, the cost savings potential of a converged architecture was of much lower importance. This provider was profitable and was not going to sacrifice availability for increased profitability.

Turnkey solutions were immediately ruled out. This provider, and I am willing to bet many others, wanted flexibility. They need to mix and match servers as the market shifts. Also, solutions that were single hypervisor only were ruled out. While they are VMware only today, they want the option to move to something else in the future. With those requirements, the number of converged options thinned out very quickly.

Converged vs. Shared Storage, in the Real World

Since we were down to a handful of options, we started to look at the key advantage that a converged solution would have over a shared solution. In other words, was the move to converged worth the risk of venturing into the unknown? As already stated, density was a clear winner for converged. They could easily get high storage capacity servers that would deliver all their capacity they needed in a much smaller amount of rack units.

What about performance? The typical converged infrastructure would claim an advantage here. No SAN to worry about and if data location is handled correctly, then even inter-cluster communication should be minimized. But this environment, like a surprising number of other cloud environments, had a high tuned, high performing Gen 5 Brocade fabric supporting it. And this fabric was even able to keep up with the shared all-flash arrays that they were  testing. Networking was at least a tie, but the provider was worried about how efficient the inter-networking between nodes would perform under the duress of heavy user demand. At best we could call networking a tie, but really for this environment since they already had made the investment and clearly had the knowledge this was a win for shared storage.

Reliability was the final area to look at. Could the converged infrastructure provide the reliability that this provider wanted? Security was a value add for them and constant operations was an expected byproduct of that value add. In other words, downtime was very unacceptable. Here, the newness of converged infrastructures clearly worked against converged solutions. While all of them go to great lengths to provide availability and reliability, this storage designer just couldn’t get over concerns of what he considered an unknown. This was a loss for the converged solutions.

The Net

Based on our conversations, this provider decided that their next generation data center would be an all-flash storage solution based on fibre channel. On the edge of technology but not on the bleeding edge. They have not ruled out converged solutions, however, as the density of these architectures simply can’t be ignored. But they are going to run it through another round of extensive testing and will bring the subject back up when they need to develop their next, next generation data center in 2-3 years.

Storage Swiss Take

Converged solutions are taking hold, but they are not for everyone and, as was the case here, shared storage has a lot of fight left in it. What really hurt converged storage in this situation was the lower priority that price had in this data center. If price had been more important and they had been a little bit more willing to take a risk on new technology, the outcome may have been different. As we often say, every data center is different, that is why we present all the options and let you make the decision that makes the most sense for your data center.

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Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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