Flash as Memory

by Woody Hutsell, http://www.appICU.com

A new analyst report on the use of flash as memory posted by David Floyer at Wikibon generated some attention in the market when it was covered by the Register. Floyer labels the architecture as FaME (Flash as Memory Extension). This blog discusses the merits of flash as memory architectures and how IBM approaches the flash as memory market.

The latency problems of disk have driven the IT industry toward a flock of solutions. One of course is flash storage, and the flash adoption rates show that this solution is rapidly gaining popularity. Another potential solution is to move more and more data into server memory (such as in-memory databases). But DRAM is volatile and relatively expensive. Flash is not volatile and much less expensive, but it’s of course slower than DRAM. In the middle of these two options lies the concept of “flash as memory.”

When we talk about using flash as memory we are wandering into interesting semantic territory. Flash is memory, so why do we need to have a new discussion about how to use flash as memory? In traditional use cases flash is used as storage, tucked away behind a block storage protocol, to allow flash memory to be easily integrated into traditional applications.

Using flash memory as memory, rather than as block storage, is gaining some traction in the marketplace. But using flash as memory requires some interesting trade-offs. Most importantly, we trade off latency (because RAM has much lower latency than flash) for much higher capacity/density and much lower cost per capacity. This latency trade-off runs counter to our typical reasons for using flash, which is to decrease the latency for data accesses vs hard disk drives. With flash as memory, we are increasing latency but for economic reasons.

For application developers, the choices have meaningful impacts. Relying on flash instead of disk means access to an infinitely large capacity of storage with low latencies. But these latencies are impacted by the processor to backplane latency + OS latency + file system latency + protocol latency + network latency + storage system latency. Various mitigating technologies are in play across each of these components, with different options affecting the total latency/cost/efficiency for the application. Relying on RAM, instead of disk, means that you get the lowest possible latency but with dramatic constraints on maximum capacity, acceptance of volatility, and the highest cost per capacity. Nonetheless, any “memory architecture” offers performance improvements on any models where hard disk drives are used as storage.

When application developers decide to adopt a flash-as-memory architecture, they can’t just plug in a flash system and expect the application to be plug and play. For application developers, using flash as memory means coding their applications to appropriate application program interfaces (API), which are likely to use memory access semantics instead of block access semantics. The development effort required to adopt a new API remains a significant limiting factor for broad marketplace adoption of these approaches in traditional applications, although efforts at standardization are emerging to lower that barrier. In most cases, application development with memory access semantics instead of block access semantics actually results in substantially simpler code. Once the application is coded to the API, then the experience for customers using the application vs an application previously running out of RAM is identical (recognizing some potential performance implications).

The question becomes: What is the best way to implement a flash-as-memory architecture? Is the best approach to use flash inside a server? Is the best approach to use PCI-attached flash? Is the best approach to use a flash appliance? Within each of these categories, solutions can be dramatically different regarding performance, reliability, and cost. Flash inside the server is fine for smaller capacity uses. If you decide to leave the boundaries of the server, the question becomes: What is the best way to connect an external flash appliance? There are a limited number of choices on the market today. Since 2014, IBM has offered the Data Engine for NoSQL – Power Systems Edition. There are many innovations in this particular flash-as-memory solution that have likely escaped the attention of the market. First, with the introduction of POWER8 technology, our Power Systems offerings now provide a new interface called CAPI (coherent accelerator processor interface) that cuts through many of the layers required in traditional x86 I/O designs. CAPI is an improvement on PCI Express used in traditional servers:

  • CAPI allows the IBM FlashSystem 900 to interact with processors and system memory like another processor would
  • This enables applications to access flash directly, bypassing the device driver, kernel, pinned pages, memory copies, etc.
  • By removing the I/O subsystem overhead, the flash can be viewed as long-latency memory instead of as I/O-attached storage
  • This eliminates >95% of the CPU cycles associated with moving data to and from flash, freeing up CPUs to do useful work (thus avoiding one of the pitfalls associated with other flash as memory solutions)
  • The removal of code path length from the flash access reduces application-visible latency by more than a factor of 2 relative to accessing flash via the legacy I/O subsystem architecture
  • The presence of a CAPI controller in the path to the flash enables future innovations which embed hardware-accelerated compute functionality in the flash read/write data path, leveraging the CPU efficiency and ease of programming that IBM’s CAPI architecture provides.

The second advantage of the Data Engine for NoSQL introduced above is that it uses IBM FlashSystem 900 as its flash memory repository. At this point, you are thinking – Aren’t all flash appliances created equal? What you should realize, of course, is that there are massive technology differences between flash appliances. IBM FlashSystem 900 is a product whose legacy was storing data in RAM. In RAM? Yes. For over 30 years Texas Memory Systems, the company IBM acquired to enter the flash memory business, sold systems based on RAM. Why does this matter? First, as I highlighted in my previous blog, our engineers are hard core when it comes to low latency. Our FlashSystem 900 is not polluted by latency-inducing storage services or bogged down by architectures originally designed for disk drives or even, for that matter, most flash drives – I don’t care whether that flash drive is attached with SAS, SATA, or NVMe. What IBM engineers do is inherently better because we started with an architecture that always treats flash as memory (remember we started with RAM) and then we just translate at the interface layer from whatever protocol we are attached to into direct memory accesses (DMA). A close look at the architecture reveals a flash appliance that does not use a PCI or NVMe backplane but an essentially native protocol-less backplane because we don’t want any software or artificial limits in the data path.

This architecture gives FlashSystem engineers endless flexibility, as demonstrated in our current array of solutions. This flexibility means that FlashSystem 900 can be used with the Data Engine for NoSQL in flash as memory use cases. It can also be used in traditional application acceleration environments where low latency storage is required, such as with Oracle RAC databases. It can be used in Tier 1 disk replacement architectures when used with IBM Spectrum Virtualize (SVC) or as part of our FlashSystem V9000. It can be used in scale-out object, block, and file use cases with our IBM Spectrum Scale solution. One elegantly defined system with multiple use cases.

The marketplace has not yet spoken on the importance of flash-as-memory. IBM with its Data Engine for NoSQL is a major early participant in this new storage direction, enabled by revolutionary foundational technologies such as CAPI and IBM FlashSystem – an end-to-end architecture only possible from a company whose reach spans from the server to the storage array.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: