SolidFire Analyst Day: Unlimited Drive Wear, Seamless Upgrades, more Platforms

SolidFire has historically been a solution targeted for service providers and private clouds, with features that support Quality of Service (QoS), multi-tenancy, automation, etc. Their plan has been to provide a consolidated, high-performance storage solution that scales seamlessly and can be efficiency apportioned to hundreds or thousands of server workloads. At their Analyst Day event last week the company announced 50% quarter over quarter bookings growth so it would seem this strategy is working.

SolidFire also announced that about half of their 2014 revenue came from the enterprise, a trend we wrote about last year. While, they didn’t provide details on the kinds of companies these enterprise customers were all three of the customers that participated in the enterprise panel were software-as-a-service companies, not what we would consider the “traditional” enterprise. It’s not surprising that much of their early successes in the enterprise would be with companies essentially running private clouds, but it would be interesting to see how many customers they have outside of cloud-based businesses.

Active IQ

SolidFire highlighted some of the innovations announced last year, including new hardware platforms and new OS upgrades. One of the most interesting was Active IQ, a capability that’s built into every SolidFire storage node. What they’re doing is using a real-time telemetry feed from each installed system to capture data points that support analytics used to drive support, reliability, new product design, even repeat business. According to the company, they’re recording 38 M data points from each system, every day. StorageSwiss Founder, George Crump, recently wrote about this topic of leveraging system analytics in storage systems, an important trend that we expect to become the norm in storage systems over the next few years.

Monitoring environmental characteristics to predict component failure is nothing new in IT, but SolidFire is going well beyond that. They can analyze these data to help operators predict business demands on the system and make real-time capacity decisions or proactively address an issue. With these advanced analytics, users can develop ‘best practices’ documents to improve efficiency and reduce risk, based on their own workloads and their real-world environments. SolidFire can also use these data to make product development decisions, such as the impact of controller designs on things like flash endurance and performance, and make appropriate changes in the next generation.

This kind of visibility into how a product behaves in the real world can make it easier to guarantee flash endurance, as an example (see below) and help clarify product development decisions supporting their shorter software release cycles. Other companies, like Nimble Storage, Cloudian, Exablox and Virtual Instruments are running similar programs. As we mentioned, this kind of capability may become ‘table stakes’ for enterprise-level IT infrastructure in the near future.

New Hardware

SF9605 is a new high-density node with 9.6TB raw (almost 35TB effective capacity after data reduction), but at the lowest cost per GB of any SolidFire node, due largely to improvements in SSD capacities with cMLC flash. SolidFire is now sourcing SSDs from three major vendors, Samsung, Intel and most recently, SanDisk. The company claims they’ve shown a 43% decrease in $/GB since their first product launch, 2 1/2 years ago.

New node configurations like this point up the benefits of SolidFire’s architecture which is designed to present storage capacity as a homogeneous pool. Customers can mix or match nodes (they’re not limited to ‘like node scaling’) and easily add or remove nodes, so the more platform choices the better. They also announced a new program that leverages this architecture and may create some headaches for other flash companies in the industry.

FlashForward

SolidFire is offering a “platform compatibility guarantee”, ensuring that all future software and platforms will interoperate with existing ones. This is really more a statement of commitment than a new feature, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to re-emphasize one of the product’s primary advantages in the market. Many storage companies tout investment protection in one way or another, but SolidFire could arguably have the most valid claim to a ‘no forklift upgrade’.

Unlimited Drive Wear Guarantee

SolidFire will replace any SSD that fails due to wear. Although they didn’t say it, the ability to make this guarantee probably came out of data captured for the Active IQ process. But whatever their internal justification for this guarantee, it does make the buy decision that much easier for the end user. It’s also becoming the norm in the flash industry, as IBM and Tegile (to name two) currently have endurance guarantees.

Element X

SolidFire also announced the availability of their OS in a software-only format called “Element X”, that’s designed for bare-metal implementation, not a VM. What they’re doing is allowing their largest customers to use their own hardware from a list of qualified platforms (currently Dell R630 and Cisco UCS) instead of buying hardware from SolidFire. This is clearly not aimed at the enterprise segment, but instead to hyperscale web and service provider customers that are interested in commodity hardware.

StorageSwiss Take

SolidFire’s business is expanding and they seem to be doing many of the right things. They’ve proven themselves, to a large extent, in the cloud provider and webscale space and have now focused on getting their technology adopted in more traditional corporate IT environments. As we see the cloud operational model being adopted in more IT organizations – private cloud infrastructures that leverage at-scale economics, emphasizing end user self-service and operational automation – we should see SolidFire’s business grow in these areas too.

The company’s Active IQ initiative is very interesting and a value for the operator, but probably helps the manufacturer even more. This is something that should become more common across the industry.

Their FlashForward program is a win for both the company and the customer. By guaranteeing the endurance of flash, they’re removing one more criterion from the buy decision and pushing the industry towards this norm. Their compatibility guarantee serves to further emphasize their non-disruptive scale and operational advantages of their architecture.

As with any analyst event, SolidFire believes their future is so bright, they recommend wearing shades. Based on the soundness of their technology and their continued success in the market this enthusiasm is not unfounded. But let’s not kid ourselves, the all-flash array market is highly competitive with many very well-funded and well-run startups – and established storage players.

Their scale-out model is great when you have a customer that can see themselves needing enough capacity or consistent performance to continually expand their investment. SolidFire needs to continue to execute in the cloud provider space, while driving down the entry price point to expand into the more mainstream enterprise.

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Eric is an Analyst with Storage Switzerland and has over 25 years experience in high-technology industries. He’s held technical, management and marketing positions in the computer storage, instrumentation, digital imaging and test equipment fields. He has spent the past 15 years in the data storage field, with storage hardware manufacturers and as a national storage integrator, designing and implementing open systems storage solutions for companies in the Western United States.  Eric earned degrees in electrical/computer engineering from the University of Colorado and marketing from California State University, Humboldt.  He and his wife live in Colorado and have twins in college.

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