XIV: “They call me Flash, ’cause I can run fast, really fast.”

IBM XIV 11.1 has just announced support for SSD Flash Cache. The title of this post is taken from DC Comics Flash Annual Vol 2 #3 and it’s all about running fast. Not everyone is going to need the XIV Flash Cache performance kicker, but if you want a couple of hundred TiB of massively fast storage in a single rack then XIV Gen3 with distributed Flash Cache is your dream come true.

To deliver this amount of capacity and extreme performance in a single rack with the industry’s best ease of use is a real game changer. You need never buy an old style multi-frame box with hundreds of 15K disk drives in it ever again.

The XIV SSD Flash Cache implementation has some at-first-glance conceptual similarities to Netapp’s FlashCache. Both XIV and Netapp are unusual in that they are natively write-optimized architectures (albeit massively different architectures) so using Flash Cache to optimize read performance gives a disproportionately good return on investment compared to other vendors’ products. But there the similarity ends.

XIV is a grid so there are 15 SSDs operating independently rather than everything being funnelled to and from a centralised cache.

…so this diagram is only one module out of 15 in each system.

The SSDs in XIV Flash Cache are at least 400GB each, but I won’t promise which exact drive since they may be multi-sourced.

IBM does some things differently courtesy of IBM Research, when it comes to wear-levelling tricks, plus some innovative thinking from the XIV team on caching. You have to be careful how you use SSDs or their efficiency and performance can degrade with use. SSD drive manufacturers have some tricks to try to minimize that, but IBM goes one step further than other vendors on that front. XIV buffers 512KB chunks in cache and then writes them sequentially onto SSD in a circular log format. Thereby avoiding random writes to the SSDs, which is the main cause of degradation on other vendors’ implementations.

15 Flash Caches – not a centralised funnelled cache

You can add Flash Caches non-disruptively to any XIV Gen3 system. XIV will bypass Flash Cache for sequential reads, and you can set specific volumes to bypass Flash Cache if you want to. This can be used to complement the per-host QoS capabilities of XIV, but we usually suggest letting the system work out how best to use Flash Cache in most cases.

Flash Cache data is persistent across both hot and cold reboot, so there is no need to wait for the cache to fill again before it’s effective.

The SSDs now make an appearance throughout the GUI, including in the performance tools where you can see the read-hit split between SSD and Memory.

There are many other feature enhancements in 11.1 like mirroring between Gen2 and Gen3 XIVs. Check out the XIV product page for more details, including the ability to see 9 XIVs on a screen and manage up to 81 XIVs from one console. This is starting to become important as we now have 59 customers who have more than 1PB of XIV storage (nett usable) and 16 of them have more than 2PB (nett usable). Also, I’m a Blackberry man myself (courtesy of IBM) but if you’re an Apple fanboy you might like the new iPhone 4S XIV Mobile Dashboard app (to add to the iPad app already released).

From what I have seen, the performance improvement from Flash Cache is more dramatic on XIV than on other disk systems. The IOPS kick can be 3x on a 70/30/50 style OLTP, and in some extreme cases could go as high as 6x. Response times are also dramatically improved. XIV without Flash Cache has really good write performance (remember the screenshot from July last year showing almost 500,000 IOPS 4KB write hits at around 1 second latency?) and now with Flash Cache the read performance gets to share in that awesomeness as well : )

But, bragging rights aside, I like to be a little conservative with real-world performance claims. This graph shows 2x IOPS for an internally tested CRM and Financial ERP database workload, 70/30 read/write with an 8KB I/O size – the most conservative of the internal test results.

Back in October I speculated that we might see an industry-standard OLTP style benchmark published by the XIV team once Flash Cache was available. I’m still hoping that will happen. It would be interesting to see how it stacks up. It seems like everyone’s doing Flash these days.

And now one more Big Bang Theory ‘Flash’ link just for fun…

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