Storage is exciting. Yes, you read that right.
Protocols like Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) and NVMe over fabrics are enabling super-fast, low-latency flash storage, which means enterprises can run web-scale applications and access data in near real time. At the same time flash storage is becoming cheaper, and vendors are starting to bring NVMe over fabrics-based commercial-grade products to market. This means it’s now affordable to buy storage that performs at cloud hyperscaler levels.
New NVMe storage technologies have the potential to — please forgive this overhyped term — actually transform data centers. Here are three software stories from this week that should not be missed.
Three-year-old startup Lightbits Labs this week said it raised $50 million in funding and launched two products based on NVMe over transmission control protocol (TCP). This technology extends the high-performance features of NVMe flash across storage nodes over a standard Ethernet network.
The company contributed code and worked alongside Facebook, Intel, Cisco, Dell EMC, and Micron to develop the NVMe-over-TCP standard, which was ratified by the NVM Express consortium in late 2018 as a binding transport layer. (It’s also worth noting that both Dell and Cisco are Lightbits investors.)
Earlier types of NVME-over-fabrics products that don’t support the new TCP standard require custom hardware and software on servers.
“So there is an additional expense associated with that, and it also means it’s a hassle to continually upgrade those systems,” said Eric Burgener, research VP who covers storage for IDC. “So the TCP implementation is interesting because it doesn’t require custom content on the servers. It works with standard converged Ethernet adapters. Users can attach pretty much any server in their infrastructure to this high-performance storage, and they don’t have to buy any custom content.”
This is what makes Lightbits’ platform novel, he added. Plus, company engineers wrote a significant amount of the TCP standard, “and that’s important because with any emerging technology, that experience is important and with new technologies, that can often be in short supply.”
Lightbits’ software-defined platform disaggregates storage and compute, which co-founder and CEO Eran Kirzner said “gives cloud providers and private data centers the capability to scale their storage and infrastructure in a very efficient way.”
The platform includes two pieces: LightOS software that runs on any hardware and an optional LightField storage acceleration card for customers that want better performance with fewer CPU cores. Customers can purchase the software separately or buy both as a bundled product. Lightbits’ products are already deployed “in multiple data centers,” Kirzner said.
Edge data center company Packet is a customer along with other Fortune 500 customers. “We are working with one very large SaaS provider, a financial services company in New York City, and a number of cloud service providers in Silicon Valley,” he added.
“A lot of their goals [are] really to just make things completely dead simple to deploy,” said IHS Markit analyst Dennis Hahn.
Mellanox made a splash this week when news broke that fellow chipmaker Nvidia would buy Mellanox for $6.9 billion. But it also announced a new composable storage product that it says will make it easier for enterprises to adopt NVME over fabrics. It’s called NVMe SNAP (stands for “software-defined, network accelerated processing”), and it makes networked flash storage appear as local NVMe storage to essentially virtualize storage for public cloud and private data center computing.
One of the challenges with direct-attached storage is that you’re stuck with an inflexible architecture, said Kevin Deierling, Mellanox’s VP of marketing. “In theory you could take the server offline and put more storage in, but in practice that never happens. And if you try to address this through over-provisioning [servers], you end up with a ton of stranded assets and it’s very expensive to make every single server node have the maximum storage.”
Like Lightbits’ product, SNAP disaggregates storage and compute to provide cloud-scale composability and speeds. But Mellanox uses a different protocol: RDMA, which was created for InfiniBand and it also works with Ethernet. And it requires specialized hardware: Mellanox’s BlueField SmartNIC adapters.
The combination of the software and the hardware “uses SDN and accelerated processing to make composable storage a snap,” Deierling said, pun intended.
BlueField adapters use Arm processors, virtual switches, and RDMA offload engines to make the network interface card (NIC) do the work instead of the CPU. The end result is that applications run faster — Mellanox says the SmartNIC combined with SNAP accelerates distributed file systems, compression, de-duplication, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), load balancing, security, and other applications.
Hahn said he expects Mellanox’s new product will be used for more specialized workloads like AI, while Lightbits will be more general purpose. “If you want a truly converged network with all your other compute resources, then TCP is the way to go,” Hahn said. “But in special cases where you need really good performance and really low latency like AI or high-performant databases, I think you’d choose RDMA.”
But, having said that, “both of them go really fast relative to everything else in the market that’s not NVMe,” he said. “You’ve got a horse that goes really fast and a horse that goes really, really fast — I don’t know if it matters who wins the race.”
Another storage startup — RackTop Systems — recently announced it raised $15 million in Series A funding for what it calls its cyber-converged data security. It’s a network-attached storage (NAS) platform with embedded access controls, encryption, and compliance. “These are all parts of the storage system, so customers don’t have to buy all these different software pieces and try to stick it all together,” said co-founder and CEO Eric Bednash.
While the company just closed its Series A, it launched in 2010 and started shipping its platform in 2012. “We bootstrapped the company and grew organically, and we didn’t really have to do a significant capital raise until just now,” Bednash said. “Even though it’s a Series A, it’s really structured more like a growth round.”
Bednash and co-founder Jonathan Halstuch, RackTop Systems’ CTO, both came out of the U.S. intelligence community. They wanted to solve a problem they both saw regularly. “We were dealing with massive amounts of data and very specific security constraints around that data, and we had to continually invent ways to deal with that problem on a global scale,” Bednash said. The company’s product, BrickStor, is now in its third release, and it has about 150 customers across government and enterprise sectors, he said.
While RackTop’s primary competitors are legacy storage vendors that support unstructured data — NetApp and Dell EMC’s Isilon platform, according to Bednash — the conversation around storage and security seems to be changing. For one, we’re seeing other data management startups like Rubrik and Cohesity adding security capabilities to their storage platforms.
And at the annual security mega-event, RSA Conference, last week Bednash said discussions about security teams starting to merge with network teams caught his attention. “Once that happens, we’ll start to have more conversations about what are the data and security features we are addressing versus having a storage conversation and then talking about security as a value add.”