EMC Serves Up Life In The FAST Lane - InformationWeek

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12/11/2009
09:38 PM
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EMC Serves Up Life In The FAST Lane

EMC has been promising great things for its new storage-tiering technology. Now we'll get to see how it plays with the company's customers.

EMC has been promising great things for its new storage-tiering technology. Now we'll get to see how it plays with the company's customers.For many businesses, the task of matching different types of data with the most appropriate storage technology is an incredibly difficult task. In a perfect world, IT staff could buy a big pile of lightning-quick storage, load it up with every last byte of data, and then congratulate themselves for a job well done.

In the real world, faster storage means more expensive storage -- often much more expensive. That rather obvious fact forces IT professionals to play a potentially dangerous guessing game with business data.

Guess right, and different types of data are matched perfectly with a certain level of storage performance, based on where, when, and how applications or users require access to that data. Guess wrong, and you wind up with a real mess; some business applications, for example, simply won't function properly when they're hitched to an underachieving storage infrastructure.

Now, let's stir the pot with two more variables. First, as I pointed out in a blog post earlier this week, storage prices simply can't drop quickly enough to balance exploding data storage requirements. Second, it is almost impossible for an IT staff to perform this tiered-storage balancing act without constantly analyzing and classifying business data. Smaller firms lack the personnel to perform this task consistently; bigger ones churn out so much data that there's no point in even trying.

Enter EMC. The company's new Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST) technology is designed to hit the perfect balance between application efficiency and storage performance, and cost, even in business environments where data storage requirements represent a constantly moving target: FAST automates the placement of data based on the way it is accessed. For example, a database index that is frequently read and written to will migrate to high-performance storage while older data that hasn't been touched for a while will move to slower, cheaper storage. The fundamental idea is that a relatively small amount of fast/expensive storage can let an application run almost as quickly as if all the storage were fast and expensive. EMC is a big fan of solid state disk technology, which delivers immense performance advantages. While SSD drives are getting cheaper, however, they still command a huge premium over Fibre Channel storage, which in turn is far more expensive than commodity SATA technology. In order to encourage the use of SSD technology, companies require the ability to know exactly which types of data stand to benefit the most. Here is how one analyst described the process in a Computerworld.com article: According to Laliberte, typically 80% of an application's data is dormant after 90 days, so being able to automatically have it moved from high-end Fibre Channel disk to more cost-effective and energy-efficient SATA drives reduces costs. "Of the other 20% [of frequently accessed data], take 25% of that and put it on flash, to guarantee performance and better energy efficiency and leave the rest on Fibre Channel drives," he said. "While Flash is still expensive now, the cost should be offset by the SATA, and pricing should decline as volume increases." EMC is making a very big deal about FAST, which wasn't exactly a hush-bush deal even before it made its official debut. For now, this might sound like technology of interest mostly to large enterprises that already manage huge tiered-storage infrastructures.

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I think that sort of misses the point. By removing the overhead costs and inefficiencies associated with information lifecycle management (ILM) -- the term that refers to this messy process of classifying and analyzing business data -- FAST could have some interesting economic effects. For starters, by allowing smaller firms to identify and target precisely what types of data benefit most from SSD storage, it also allows them to make a better business case for adopting SSD technology.

Stay tuned. If FAST is the shape of things to come in data storage management, the future might turn out to be a lot less chaotic and messy than it once appeared to be.

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