Polish enterprises speed apps with flash and hybrid flash storage

Flash storage might cost more but enterprises in Poland are using flash and hybrid flash arrays for their low latency

In recent years the performance of processors, memory and networks has grown several times faster than that of spinning disk HDDs.

Because of this, some enterprise applications suffer when access to mechanical disk creates bottlenecks that slow down I/O operations. This applies especially to databases, analytical applications and systems capable of running simulations.

This has resulted in the rise in use of low-latency flash storage, in all-flash arrays as well as alongside spinning disk in hybrid flash arrays.

But, for many in Poland, flash is still a long way off – because it is seen as a very expensive storage option.

“Price per GB overshadows the idea of price per I/O among IT managers in Poland,” says Jaroslaw Smulski, research manager at IDC Poland.

“There are a lot of cases where integrators offer flash, but are unable to convince customers the effect will be a much faster application performance compared to spinning disk.”

Performance challenges cost

But new technologies and applications that require much faster and more frequent operations per second have forced some companies to migrate to flash storage systems.

“Flash offers much higher performance and consumes much less energy,” says Grzegorz Dobrowolski, datacentre and virtualisation director at Cisco Systems Poland.

“On the other hand, the cost per 1GB of capacity is 13 to 14 times higher than HDD and thus a barrier that inhibits its implementation. Price often closes down technical arguments, because customers are looking simply for cheaper products.” 

For high-end datacentre operators, however, all-flash arrays are most certainly on the agenda. One such organisation is IBM Poland, which uses all-flash arrays in its datacentre at Blonie, 30km west of Warsaw.

“IBM FlashSystem all-flash arrays are a response to serious business challenges,” says Piotr Biskupski, flash system technical leader at IBM Poland. “In particular, they ensure high availability of applications and data, guarantee minimum delays and enable business 24/7.”

The largest datacentres in Poland have used flash since its inception.

“All-flash arrays and flash in servers have become standard equipment at Comarch Data Center locations,” says Wojciech Sobczak, IT specialist at datacentre service provider Comarch Data Center.

“We also use hybrid flash arrays with automatic tiering between HDDs and SSDs. The undeniable advantage of using hybrid flash storage is lower cost, compared with all-flash arrays.”

To save costs, Comarch builds its own all-flash storage systems, based on commercially available commodity hardware. In this way, the company builds storage systems tailored to the needs of its customers.

“We recently built a matrix with a performance peaking 2.1 million IOPS for random records, using an 8KB data block size,” says Sobczak.

Data analysis crucial to the business

Pepco is another Polish operation that has opted for all-flash. It is a rapidly growing clothing and housewares retailer, which had more than 500 stores in Poland in 2013. Available transactional data for the central data warehouse is crucial for Pepco's operations. The data warehouse is the source of all reports for individual outlets and the head office – and most operational decisions are made on its analysis.

“Performance of the data warehouse has a crucial impact for our business. It is much more important than the performance of the ERP system,” says Marcin Okraska, IT director at Pepco Poland.

To speed data warehousing operations, Pepco has deployed IBM's all-flash storage alongside disk.  

“With flash we have obtained the required performance, capacity and high scalability we need. Everything is closed in a box of 20TB in a single rack. Using flash systems means the average I/O load on Pepco's data warehouse storage has dropped 40%,” says Okraska.

Similar needs have prompted insurance company Generali Poland to modernise its EMC storage systems by adding flash. The main driver has been the need to streamline and automate reporting processes.

The company decided to create a common, reliable source of management information, with an aim to shorten data collection, processing and analysis times.

Limitations of disk array

Tomasz Kalinowski, IT architect at Generali Poland, says: “Until recently, the only way to increase the performance of disk arrays was to add hard disks one after another, all configured in a Raid group.”

“But, we ended up with an array configuration that still was not efficient enough for the required I/O parameters. By continuously adding HDDs, there was more and more unused space on servers – even tiering hot and cold data was of little help.” 

The answer for Generali was hybrid flash with solid state drives and PCIe flash combined using storage tiering, allowing Generali to achieve the required balance between capacity and performance.

Hybrid flash storage systems – traditional disk arrays strengthened by some flash drives – do better than all-flash arrays in sales terms in Poland. Not all enterprise workloads need pure flash arrays, and in such situations the partial use of flash in hybrid arrays better balances expenditure and business needs.

“With proper management of virtual pools, frequently used data can be handled by flash drives that significantly speed up the databases. In other cases, the performance of flash can be provided by PCIe flash cards, to accelerate access to hot data,” says IDC’s Smulski.

Cisco’s Dobrowolski agrees: “Although the cost of flash still makes it uneconomical to switch over completely for most users – especially in the SME sector – the use of a small percentage of flash drives alongside spinning disk is becoming a storage standard,” he says.

Flash futures in Poland

In Poland, flash storage has been around in some form or another for many years – but only in the last few years has it been widely adopted.

“Today it’s impossible to realise a new storage project without using flash,” says Jarosław Dabrowski, technology director at gaming market technology provider Gtech Poland.

“Along with virtualisation, cloud and software-defined, flash is one of those things right now that needs to be seriously considered by IT managers during any pre-deployment phase.”

IBM’s Biskupski says: “The attraction of flash is pretty apparent: Performance, compactness, reliability, and low power and space consumption.”

IDC predicts that, by 2016, flash will have a 40% market share of hard drives shipped in central and eastern Europe.

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