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Cancer Research boosts IOPS with EMC XtremSF PCIe flash

Antony Adshead

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has deployed EMC PCIe XtremSF flash storage cards with benefits.

These include reduced times to run CRM queries, from many hours to a few seconds; regaining huge amounts of IOPS performance from storage arrays, and an expected return on investment within 18 months for the implementation.

CRUK's main office at Angel, London, has around 1,200 staff, with 5,000 across the organisation as a whole. That site is also its main datacentre, serving key applications, including Microsoft Exchange email, HR apps, financials and Oracle CRM. It has a secondary site 25 miles away in Slough.

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Several factors led CRUK to move towards using PCIe flash acceleration in its storage infrastructure; namely that it was time for a storage hardware refresh and the organisation was moving towards physical centralisation of buildings and server and desktop virtualisation.

CRUK’s existing EMC Clariion SAN – a 4480 with around 700TB of capacity in Fibre Channel, SATA and flash drives – was at a tipping point in terms of I/O performance, said head of infrastructure, Michael Briggs.

“EMC was running tests and getting stats off the Clariion, which showed it to be very slow,” he said. “They asked us to take it off test and on to production data. They didn’t realise that was its production performance.”

The difficulty with the Clariion was not in terms of storage capacity but its inability to keep up with the required processing power, so as part of the two-site hardware refresh Briggs’s team looked at how to improve CPU performance.

So, while CRUK added a VNX 5500 at its main site, which became the repository for VDI, Microsoft Exchange email and file storage data (and further VNXs – a 5500 and 5300) at the Slough site.

However, the main demands on IOPS performance on the existing storage had come from CRUK’s Oracle Business Intelligence queries, said Briggs. “Marketing queries were causing extreme IOPS demands on the arrays and we wanted to take these peaks away from them,” he said.

So, the firm decided to move EMC’s PCIe flash card offering, VFCache, now rebranded XtremSF.

PCIe flash – or server-side flash – is just one way that flash storage capacity can be added to server and storage infrastructures. It is attached directly to servers and provides high IOPS, low latency caching of hot data very close to the server CPU.

CRUK deployed a 350GB single-level cell (SLC) VFCache card in an HP server and a marketing query run that normally took five to seven hours. It ran in 18 seconds.

The key benefit to PCIe flash storage, said Briggs, was that massive amounts of IOPS previously clogging up the storage array were now consigned to dedicated flash cache on a server. This not only speeded performance on the flash card but also freed performance on the array.

“We got about half of a VNX back and that’s worth far more than the cost of a VFCache card,” he said. Meanwhile, the marketing department was able to run three or four more queries per day than they had done previously. “They quadrupled throughput, which was obviously a good business result,” said Briggs.

CRUK has since deployed two more 700GB EMC XtremSF PCIe flash cards. These were also SLC, although now EMC offers the cards with lower cost multi-level cell (MLC) flash.

“If you target flash correctly it not only pays for itself but gives you a big chunk of your main storage back too,” said Briggs.


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