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The Future of SSD

expert ron raffensperger 326 sq

An insightful interview with Ron Raffensperger, CTO of Huawei Data Center Solutions. | July 2018

New Horizons: Well hi everyone. Welcome to New Horizons, the podcast channel for ICT Insights magazine. Today we’re talking with Ron Raffensperger, who is the CTO of Data Center Solutions for Huawei Technologies. Ron, thanks for joining us today.


Ron Raffensperger: It’s my pleasure.


New Horizons: And can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do for Huawei?


Ron Raffensperger: Sure. So I’ve actually, I’m based in Shenzhen in China at Huawei’s headquarters, and I’ve been there for eleven years. Prior to that I was in Silicon Valley for quite a long time working for small startups all the way up through large corporations. I worked for IBM and Siemens for a while. And my job is really two-fold. One is to focus on our field people who need the technical skills necessary to support our sales activities in the pre-sales environment, and they have to be trained, they have to have materials, so I focus a lot on that. The second is on making sure that we’re doing the right thing for our customers. So I meet with a lot of C-level executives, primarily CIOs, CTOs, and focus on what do they need to make their businesses better and how Huawei can help them with that.


New Horizons: Well, it’s, you’ve been with the company quite a long time. You’ve been here even before the Enterprise business unit was established. And during that time you’ve seen a lot of advances in technologies and things that we’ve been working on. One of the things that was really interesting that you were talking about yesterday was our SSD drives and the advancements we’ve been making there. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?


Ron Raffensperger: Sure. Well, Huawei got into storage as a business actually in 2006 when we created a joint venture with Symantec. They had acquired a number of storage assets, including the company Vitria, and Huawei and Symantec created a joint venture called Huawei-Symantec and we collectively built a very large series of security products, firewalls, and that sort of thing, as well as storage products. And then in 2011, Huawei bought out that joint venture. And throughout that, we have built both traditional SAN and mass storage, and now converged storage, and have really focused more recently on solid state. A lot of advances have gone on as people have taken essentially silicon technology to be able to replace the spinning head disks that have been traditional in IT for, oh gosh, even longer than I’ve been in IT, which is back, we don’t even want to talk about how far. So, but I think one of the things about Huawei is that we’re always trying to push the limits, and so Huawei through our own chip design organization called HiSilicon has created an SSD controller, and we have created all the algorithms inside of it that then allow our SSD disks to have very low latency, very consistent latency, and very high reliability. So our MTBF’s now — Mean Time Between Failure, for those non-techies of us — is actually better than normal hard drives, which is really a major advancement over the pretty unreliable solid-state storage that has been in use in the past.


New Horizons: And our solutions are all based on flash?


Ron Raffensperger: Yes. So the storage silicon, there’s different flavors of flash storage. There’s the consumer all the way up to the higher reliability enterprise class storage, which is what we use. There are also a lot of things that are coming on the horizon that will push down the, I should say push up the data capacity, as well as reducing the times or speeding up the access. So the latest that’s starting to come out now is what’s called 3D crosspoint, which is a technology that can increase the density by a factor of ten and, at the same time, reduce the, what’s called the latency, so in effect speed up the access to data. And we’ll be seeing some of that by the end of this year, and in broad terms next year.


New Horizons: And you had mentioned yesterday that we had made some advancements in PCIE bus technology. Could you elaborate on that a bit?


Ron Raffensperger: Sure. Historically, there have been two ways to plug in solid-state disks. One of them was attached to a PCIE, a card, so that’s a high-speed bus interface, and many of the servers that Huawei and others make have slots that you can plug PCIE cards into. But it’s usually not very many, typically one or two in a server. The other way to hook in solid-state disks was a form factor that looked just like a two-and-a-half-inch hard drive or a three-and-a-half-inch hard drive. And but when you do that, those disks utilize what’s called the SCSI protocol, which is a protocol that was designed to be used with spinning head disks. And so yes, you got some speed increase, but the bus commands that were still coming to these solid-state drives were, you know, essentially move the head to this block and write this information. And a lot of that is, has no meaning for solid state. So the disks that were plugged into a SCSI bus were slower than those that were plugged in on a PCIE bus. So the PCIE standards organization, of which Huawei is a member, came up with what’s called NVME, which is the ability to have a single bus, and if I plug in a normal hard drive it gets SCSI commands, but if I plug in a solid-state disk that understands about NVME, then it uses the PCIE command. So much, much faster and it opens up new possibilities where the commands that are coming from the controller can be, <do a database commit> rather than <seek to this block and write this data>. So, lots of new opportunities in this area.


New Horizons: And pardon the potentially ignorant question, but I’m sure a lot of people are wondering. What’s the difference between an SSD drive in my laptop versus an SSD drive that’s enterprise grade?


Ron Raffensperger: So the biggest difference is just in the technology of the flash chips themselves and the controllers. Your laptop doesn’t need that much speed, and you’re not doing constant reads and writes like a database kind of a system, and so the chips that can be used can have lower reliability. They’re not going to be utilized that often so that they would wear out as quickly.


New Horizons: What are the cost differentials between spinning hard drives and SSD drives, for example?


Ron Raffensperger: So that’s one of the exciting things that’s been happening, and it’s pretty typical of what happens when any kind of a new silicon device comes out, right? The Moore’s Law kind of effect is alive and well in the solid-state arena. So if we look at 2016, the price of SSD was about three times the price of an equivalent 10,000 RPM hard drive, and by 2018 it was down to two times, and the projections are that it will continue to fall at that rate. So the rate may be next year or 2020 would just be a little over maybe one and a half or maybe 1.4 times the typical hard drive. So we see the hard drive manufacturers getting out of the fast spinning hard drives. It used to be for very high performance, we needed disks that were very fast. And to be able to do that, you spun the platters really fast. So there were 15,000 RPM hard drives. But about two years ago, Huawei at least stopped selling any of those and replaced them with solid state, because the price was essentially equivalent. The capacities were equivalent. The same is starting to happen to the 10,000 RPM hard drives, and they’re being phased out by manufacturers because of the price crossover that is about to happen. One of the other things is because of solid state, we can utilize two techniques that are called compression and de-duplication much more easily than we can with normal hard drives. And you can get, for Huawei as an example, our newest Dorado, we guarantee that you’ll get at least three-to-one compression reduction in storage from this compression and de-duplication and, if you don’t, we’ll buy you the storage. And so if you put that together with how close the SSD’s are to the crossover with the normal hard drives, you actually can get less expensive SSD than you could the equivalent hard drive.


New Horizons: And heaven forbid I lose my data or a drive gets erased. So in spinning hard drives, there’s a pretty standardized data recovery solution. How do you recover data when an SSD drive fails or if you accidentally erase one?


Ron Raffensperger: So we actually use very similar techniques. The technology generally has been referred to over the years as RAID, which is Redundant Array of Independent Disks. And what it is, is a way to have extra hard disks that have more, that have part or all of the information from others, so it’s duplicated so that if I lose a hard drive, then I won’t lose information. And when I put the new hard drive in to replace the one that failed, then I have to be able to put back on that disk what was there before. And one of the challenges with traditional kinds of RAID technology as hard-drive capacities have gone up is that it takes a really, really long time. So if I have a one-terabyte hard drive, maybe it’s going to take me multiple hours to be able to recover that information, to rewrite it back to the disk with traditional RAID technologies. So Huawei a few years ago pioneered what we call RAID 2.0+, which is a distributed non-volatile, there’s no RAID controller, we do everything through software, and everything gets distributed in pieces rather than in blocks, which was the traditional way of doing RAID. As a result, we can rebuild one terabyte in as little as 30 minutes. The other thing that we’ve done for solid state is we’ve brought out a new technology that we call RAID TP, which will actually allow you to lose three disks simultaneously and not lose any of the information on those disks.


New Horizons: You had mentioned before about the 3D crosspoint technology as being an advancement with ten times the density. So what’s the future? Where do we go from there?


Ron Raffensperger: So the two areas that are really exciting as we look forward in technology on solid state is the solid-state disk, the 3D crosspoint kinds of things, but the other is what’s called storage-class memory. And storage-class memory, if you look inside of a computer, whether it’s a server or your own laptop or desktop computer, you’ll find separate sockets for the computer itself and then for memory that’s associated with the computer. It’s typically called DRAM, dynamic RAM for random-access memory, and it’s very fast but it has a slight problem in that if the power goes off, everything gets lost. And so the storage-class memory takes the advantages of solid-state storage of not losing information when the power is lost with the speed and capacities of DRAM. So storage-class memory in the future can replace DRAMs and what that can allow us to do is rather than the situation today where we utilize separate solid-state disks to hold cache and that kind of information before it gets written to the final storage, we could actually do it within the server. There are a lot of new kinds of techniques that you can utilize when you can do that caching right in the server with memory that won’t get lost if you lose power. So there are a number of things. There’s another area, which is being able to distribute the NVME storage over different bus structures so that you can actually have a lot of shelves of just storage and without attached computing, and utilize them all as one big bus-connected storage as opposed to the way that we use things like SAS as a way to connect the back ends. So, a lot of new kind of technologies coming out. Many of them are being pioneered in public clouds like Huawei’s public cloud, and they will then make their way into the traditional enterprise data centers.


New Horizons: So we’re doing some pretty impressive work in the field.


Ron Raffensperger: I’m very impressed with what we’re doing, and particularly because a lot of it is augmented by Huawei’s chip technologies. So if you look at things like we now have interface cards that can be different speeds and different protocols like Fibre Channel over Ethernet, and you just tell the card oh, you’re this flavor now, whereas previously you had to have multiple kinds of cards. So a lot of the advancements that Huawei is making are through our own capabilities around creating chip and other kinds of technologies.


New Horizons: So anything else you’d like to leave our listeners with? Any final thoughts?


Ron Raffensperger: No, I think stay tuned is the best thing, because Huawei is advancing technologies and bringing products to market very quickly, and we’ll have more to talk about in the future.


New Horizons: So thanks everyone for listening. We’ve been talking to Ron Raffensperger, CTO of Huawei’s Data Center Solutions. Thanks again, Ron, and we hope to have you on again soon.


Ron Raffensperger: My pleasure.


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