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If you're anything like me, you remember 2016 as the "year of all flash." During that year, we had countless customers coming to our testing lab to see how moving from spinning media could help them on the journey to modernize their infrastructure.

Flash forward

The reality is that flash is the storage of the future. Legacy systems are stretching to their limits, and it's time that organizations reevaluate their storage options. Fortunately, these options continue to multiply.

As solid-state media continues to advance, there are more options as it relates to NAND. Now that flash is well established in the modern data center, OEMs are starting to adopt different types of NAND to help drive down costs.

The latest technology is denser, allowing more content to be stored at four bits per cell. Quad-level cell (QLC) is more cost-effective than its predecessors: single-level cell (SLC), multi-level cell (MLC) and triple-level cell (TLC). That cost savings does come with tradeoffs such as a lower endurance and read/write cycles. As OEMs mature they will need to become more efficient in the way they access the NAND to store the bits.

Investing in flash

At WWT, we make it our business to keep up with the changing pace of technology. That's why several years ago, we created our own Flash Lab: a foundation for storage, compute and virtualization proofs of concept (POC) located in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC).

Essentially, the Flash Lab is a multi-vendor environment that provides a fully integrated network, storage and compute platform for POCs. It enables WWT to do performance and resiliency testing using synthetic or real workload generation as well as virtualization and VDI testing, workshops, demos and upgrades/downgrades.

We take a solution-based, holistic approach to every technical engagement that leverages cutting-edge technology based on business objectives and existing infrastructure. And when it comes to the storage industry, NVMe and NVMe-oF are game-changing.

NVMe protocol is the modern standard for fabric connectivity. It advances beyond traditional SCSI protocol-based transport by providing much greater parallelism between the host and the media to take full advantage of modern media capabilities.

As NVMe becomes more widely adopted between the host operating system and physical connection layer to the storage solutions supporting the infrastructure, we expect the following benefits:

  • Decreased CPU utilization on the host.
  • Higher throughput to the storage subsystem.
  • Significant reduction in latency for the application IO.
  • More efficient use of resources overall in the data center.

With NVMe and NVMe-oF's growing adoption, WWT invested in the Flash Lab to support complex customer testing requirements and help achieve these benefits.

The ATC advantage

While the benefits of technology like NVMe can be easily understood, and it can be relatively easy to feature test these solutions, achieving performance and resiliency testing is much more complex. Most of our customers don't have the ability, time or resources to evaluate next-generation storage products at scale in their own lab environments.

This is especially true as new systems are deployed to move past historical performance bottlenecks, increase capacity and support new IT projects. In addition, customers aren't always aware of how certain workloads will perform when deploying a new component in an existing infrastructure.

Customers use the Flash Lab's storage testing foundation to solve various business and IT challenges, including:

  • Performance: Improve application performance to drive increased productivity and reduced application support costs.
  • Integration: See how new storage protocols differ from legacy systems using modern infrastructure from multiple OEMs.
  • Storage costs: Control storage costs by eliminating redundant data and fully using the capacity of storage environments.
  • Facilities costs: Reduce facility costs by employing technologies that lower energy and floor space consumption and management overhead.

Our engineers and technology expertise in the ATC offer organizations a way to test storage, compute and network solutions from multiple OEMs — all integrated in a controlled working environment. The result is outcome-focused solutions, fueled by our expertise in infrastructure modernization, multicloud and enterprise architecture.

The ATC helps customers accelerate decision-making, increase confidence in that decision, support processes and generate information faster. With WWT's testing tools and talented engineering teams, customers can evaluate technology in a matter of weeks and eliminate months of wasted time and resources.

How the labs work

The labs include 15 server nodes purpose-built with isolated compute and memory to provide sufficient I/O for massive stress testing of the latest flash storage platforms. In order to verify features and functionality, evaluate performance and validate scalability. The Flash Lab test environment can be configured to simulate several common customer use cases such as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), server virtualization and database/analytics.

Flash Lab test environment
Flash Lab test environment

The current lab has more than 15 different models of all-flash arrays from a wide variety of manufacturers, using both blade (Cisco UCS M5/M4 and Dell R740 XD) and rackmount systems as load generators. Some examples of the latest technology implemented in the lab include:

NetApp AFF A800, A400 and Big Data / AI Lab

  • End-to-end NVMe array using FC-NVMe
  • SCM available in "Flash Cache" tier

Dell Technologies PowerStore

  • Back-end NVMe only today
  • Designed for NVMe media

Dell EMC PowerMax 2000 Dual Engine

  • Support for NVMe and SCM media
  • Front-end NVMe support through FC-NVMe

Pure Storage FlashArray //X70R2 and //X90R2

  • End-to-end NVMe array
  • Front-end NVMe support through RoCE

HPE 3PAR 9450 and Nimble

  • Intel Optane NVMe caching
  • SCM

HPE Primera

  • Supports both NVMe and SCM media

Our current blades and rack mount servers have Intel processor sets ranging from Sandy Bridge to Cascade Lake. We have a variety of methodologies and testing resources, but our primary testing tool for performance is VDBench and our de facto performance visualization tool is Grafana. This enables us to capture and visualize metrics such as IOPS, latency and throughput from both hosts and storage in a very granular fashion.

Upgrading the lab with the latest tech

We like to keep up with the continuous churn of technology our industry provides us. To enable our customers access to the latest and most innovative solutions on the market, we are continuously performing upgrades to our lab environment.

We have recently started making the transition to the next generation of the WWT Flash Lab. The labs will now include the latest generation of compute (SkyLake w. UCS M5 Compute) and the latest generation of Ethernet fabrics (25/40/100 Gbps), along with improved fabric capabilities support such as FC-NVMe and RoCE.

A recent upgrade to MDS 9706 and Cisco 9364 spine-leaf architecture also future-proofs our lab. Our goal is to have the ability to showcase advancements in NVMe-oF and how this will impact performance for a customer's most critical business application. As these technologies grow and become more mature, this fabric upgrade will allow us to showcase the latest technology via POCs, workshops, demos and performance testing.

Other upgrade specifics include the latest generation of UCS M5 blades dedicated to benchmarking and POCs, 2 UCS Chassis dedicated to performance testing, 3 UCS chassis dedicated to POC requests and the new generation of fabric interconnects with the ability to uplink to our new core switches at 400Gbps. These capabilities give us the ability to run performance and benchmarking tests per our customers' requests.

Take advantage of our Flash Lab

Let WWT help you determine the best flash storage solution for your organization's needs. WWT experts will be happy to guide you through the different vendor options so you can make the best decision for your environment.

Ready to start exploring? Access the Flash Lab by reaching out to your account manager or connecting with us online.