We, the industry and I, have had a long running debate on whether hardware innovation still makes sense anymore (see my Hardware vs. software innovation – rounds 1, 2, & 3 posts).
The news within the last week or so is that Dell-EMC cancelled their multi-million$, DSSD project, which was a new hardware innovation intensive, Tier 0 flash storage solution, offering 10 million of IO/sec at 100µsec response times to a rack of servers.
DSSD required specialized hardware and software in the client or host server, specialized cabling between the client and the DSSD storage device and specialized hardware and flash storage in the storage device.
What ultimately did DSSD in, was the emergence of NVMe protocols, NVMe SSDs and RoCE (RDMA over Converged Ethernet) NICs.
Last weeks post on Excelero (see my 4.5M IO/sec@227µsec … post) was just one example of what can be done with such “commodity” hardware. We just finished a GreyBeardsOnStorage podcast (GreyBeards podcast with Zivan Ori, CEO & Co-founder, E8 storage) with E8 Storage which is yet another approach to using NVMe-RoCE “commodity” hardware and providing amazing performance.
Both Excelero and E8 Storage offer over 4 million IO/sec with ~120 to ~230µsec response times to multiple racks of servers. All this with off the shelf, commodity hardware and lots of software magic.
Lessons for future hardware innovation
What can be learned from the DSSD to NVMe(SSDs & protocol)-RoCE technological transition for future hardware innovation:
- Closely track all commodity hardware innovations, especially ones that offer similar functionality and/or performance to what you are doing with your hardware.
- Intensely focus any specialized hardware innovation to a small subset of functionality that gives you the most bang, most benefits at minimum cost and avoid unnecessary changes to other hardware.
- Speedup hardware design-validation-prototype-production cycle as much as possible to get your solution to the market faster and try to outrun and get ahead of commodity hardware innovation for as long as possible.
- When (and not if) commodity hardware innovation emerges that provides similar functionality/performance, abandon your hardware approach as quick as possible and adopt commodity hardware.
Of all the above, I believe the main problem is hardware innovation cycle times. Yes, hardware innovation costs too much (not discussed above) but I believe that these costs are a concern only if the product doesn’t succeed in the market.
When a storage (or any systems) company can startup and in 18-24 months produce a competitive product with only software development and aggressive hardware sourcing/validation/testing, having specialized hardware innovation that takes 18 months to start and another 1-2 years to get to GA ready is way too long.
What’s the solution?
I think FPGA’s have to be a part of any solution to making hardware innovation faster. With FPGA’s hardware innovation can occur in days weeks rather than months to years. Yes ASICs cost much less but cycle time is THE problem from my perspective.
I’d like to think that ASIC development cycle times of design, validation, prototype and production could also be reduced. But I don’t see how. Maybe AI can help to reduce time for design-validation. But independent FABs can only speed the prototype and production phases for new ASICs, so much.
ASIC failures also happen on a regular basis. There’s got to be a way to more quickly fix ASIC and other hardware errors. Yes some hardware fixes can be done in software but occasionally the fix requires hardware changes. A quicker hardware fix approach should help.
Finally, there must be an expectation that commodity hardware will catch up eventually, especially if the market is large enough. So an eventual changeover to commodity hardware should be baked in, from the start.
In the end, project failures like this happen. Hardware innovation needs to learn from them and move on. I commend Dell-EMC for making the hard decision to kill the project.
There will be a next time for specialized hardware innovation and it will be better. There are just too many problems that remain in the storage (and systems) industry and a select few of these can only be solved with specialized hardware.
Picture credit(s): Gravestones by Sherry Nelson; Motherboard 1 by Gareth Palidwor; Copy of a DSSD slide photo taken from EMC presentation by Author (c) Dell-EMC