SolidFire flash arrays built for cloud providers

Carol Sliwa

With upcoming updates to its all-flash arrays, SolidFire Inc. will try to broaden its reach beyond the cloud service providers that it initially targeted and find a more general enterprise IT audience.

New features that the Boulder, Colorado-based startup plans to add this year include 16 Gbps Fibre Channel connectivity; real-time replication; support for a single cluster that combines storage nodes of differing capacities, performance and protocols; and native snapshot-based backup and restore with any object store that uses an Amazon S3 or OpenStack Swift APIs.

So far, SolidFire's all-flash arrays have largely held their appeal for cloud providers that need to scale storage and performance. Customers have a choice of three different all-flash storage nodes, each in a 1U form factor with 10 multi-level cell (MLC) flash drives.

The smallest SF3010 node supplies 3 TB of raw capacity, 12 TB of "effective" capacity with data reduction factored in, and 50,000 IOPS for an 80/20 mixed read/write workload. The high-end SF9010 node offers 9.6 TB of raw capacity, 34 TB of "effective" capacity, and 75,000 IOPS for an 80/20 mixed read/write workload, according to Jay Prassl, vice president of marketing at SolidFire.

But, Prassl said, customers can mix and match any of SolidFire's products within the same cluster. Storage footprints commonly start at a five-node minimum configuration and have the potential to expand to as many as 100 nodes, he said.

That means a cloud provider with extreme needs could potentially buy a 100-node SF9010 all-flash system with a raw capacity of 960 TB, a post-data-reduction capacity as high as 3.4 PB, depending on the data type, and IOPS well into the millions, according to Prassl's numbers.

Beyond the scale-out capabilities, another SolidFire feature that has drawn great interest from cloud providers is quality of service (QoS). With SolidFire's fine-grained QoS settings, providers can assign minimum, maximum and burst IOPS on a per-volume basis.

"They're one of the first to really push QoS," said Henry Baltazar, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc.

Baltazar noted that SolidFire's innovation lies in software rather than hardware engineering. The company uses commodity x86 servers and standard MLC SSDs fortified for enterprise use, he said.

SolidFire's all-flash arrays stand out among competing all-flash arrays in price and performance, but those two criteria can be difficult to compare when vendors use varying configurations and test conditions.

SolidFire claimed its price per gigabyte is less than $3 with deduplication, compression and thin provisioning taken into consideration, placing it among the lowest on the market. On the other hand, the street price of "less than $200,000" for the least expensive configuration (the five-node SF3010) isn't quite as low -- several vendors list a price less than $100,000 as their starting price for low-capacity models. SolidFire also claims a $1 per IOPS price for all its systems.

But SolidFire is in the minority of all-flash array vendors with its support for both inline deduplication and inline compression, so its arrays have the potential to store more data than the raw capacity figures indicate, contingent on the data type.

Another area where SolidFire stands out is its custom data protection technology. The company's proprietary Helix distributed replication algorithm spreads at least two redundant copies of data across all drives within the system. The company claims the "RAID-less" approach permits the system to sustain multiple, concurrent failures and isolate them to avoid a performance impact.

SolidFire's customers includes cloud and managed hosting providers such as ViaWest, Calligo, Colt, Datapipe, Clearview, CloudSigma, Internap and ServInt. Other large customers have included eBay, PayPal and SunGard.

Because of its controller-less clustered architecture, SolidFire claims the loss of nodes has no performance impact on volumes.

"SolidFire isolates failures, minimizing the impact on systemwide performance," Prassl said. "Within a SolidFire system, even though there is a decrease in the total available performance of the system, there is no impact to the individual performance level set for each individual volume. This capability is enabled through SolidFire's guaranteed quality-of-service capabilities, and applies to every volume within the system."

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