Undersea datacenter in our future?

Read about Microsoft’s Project Natick Phase 2 this past week. Microsoft submerged a steel encased tube filled with servers, storage and compute for 2 years in the UK and just took it out of the water this past July. We’ve written before about underwater and in space data centers (see our IT in space post)

Project Natick’s Phase 2 underwater data center had 12 racks with 864 servers and 27.5PB of disk storage and was connected to the nearby Orkney island’s power grid (250Kw) and networking infrastructure. The Orkney’s islands are located off the NE coast of the Scotland and its power grid is 100% renewable, using tidal, solar and wind power. During the data center test, Orkney was able was able to power the data center, the islands and still provide power back to the Scottish power grid.

More reliable underwater

According to early reports, the servers in the underwater data center had 1/8th the failures that a control data center, on land, had. Microsoft attributes the enhanced server reliability to the use of a 100% Nitrogen (at 1 atmosphere pressure) rather than normal air and the lack of any humans to jostle the equipment/disturb the environment.

It’s also likely that the temperature variability present in a normal, on the surface of the earth, data center was measurably less than for a data center on the sea floor. If this were true, that could also help explain its better reliability.

Why underwater?

It’s all about cooling modern servers (and storage). According to NREL ( USA National Renewable Energy Lab), most data centers operate at 1.8 PUE (power use efficiency) that is, using 180% of the power required for the servers, storage and networking equipment. The other 80% is used mainly for cooling electronics, but also includes lighting, HVAC, and other essential services for humans. NREL says that high efficiency data centers can achieve a PUE of 1.2.

PUE for Project Natick Phase 2 data center was reported to be 1.07. The only additional electricity needed would probably be power for cooling.

Cooling for the Project Natick Phase 2 data center used seawater pumped through the back of server racks. The data center was placed on the seafloor at 35m (117ft) deep.

It kind looked like a submarine. According to Microsoft, the data center was contracted for, built and deployed in under 90 days. The intent was to have the data center be smaller than a standard ISO shipping container. The data center was driven ontop of an 18 wheeler, from where it was built to the Orkney Island, including ferry crossings. It was placed on a triangular support, towed out to see and deposited on the seafloor.

While 864 servers and 27.5PB of storage seem like a lot to most of us, for Microsoft Azure it’s too small to be used as a regional zone. But for (large) edge deployments. something this size or (10X) smaller might be just the thing.

Microsoft notes that 1/2 the world’s population lives within 200km (120mi) of the ocean. So there’s a ready supply of people and businesses that could take advantage of any underwater data center.

And of course, such a structure when laid on the bottom of the ocean floor, could create an artificial reef (if left in place long enough). Artificial reefs have been made out of ocean oil rigs, sunken war ships and large chunks of steel/concrete. So a underwater data center could do so just as well. And maybe the heating coming from the data center cooling pumps would foster even more coral life.

Microsoft plans Project Natick Phase 3 to be a full Azure AZ that will be deployed underwater which will include about 12 Phase 2 datacenter pressurized units.

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New PCM could supply 36PB of memory to CPUs

Read an article this past week on how quantum geometry can enable a new form of PCM (phase change memory) that is based on stacks of metallic layers (SciTech Daily article: Berry curvature memory: quantum geometry enables information storage in metallic layers), That article referred to a Nature article (Berry curvature memory through electrically driven stacking transitions) behind a paywall but I found a pre-print of it, Berry curvature memory through electrically driven stacking transitions.

Figure 1| Signatures of two different electrically-driven phase transitions in WTe2. a, Side view (b–c plane) of unit cell showing possible stacking orders in WTe2 (monoclinic 1T’, polar orthorhombic Td,↑ or Td,↓) and schematics of their Berry curvature distributions in momentum space. The spontaneous polarization and the Berry curvature dipole are labelled as P and D, respectively. The yellow spheres refer to W atoms while the black spheres represent Te atoms. b, Schematic of dual-gate h-BN capped WTe2 evice. c, Electrical conductance G with rectangular-shape hysteresis (labeled as Type I) induced by external doping at 80 K. Pure doping was applied following Vt/dt = Vb/db under a scan sequence indicated by black arrows. d, Electrical conductance G with butterfly-shape switching (labeled as Type II) driven by electric field at 80 K. Pure E field was applied following -Vt/dt = Vb/db under a scan sequence indicated by black arrows. Positive E⊥ is defined along +c axis. Based on the distinct hysteresis observations in c and d, two different phase transitions can be induced by different gating configurations.

The number one challenge in IT today,is that data just keeps growing. 2+ Exabytes today and much more tomorrow.

All that information takes storage, bandwidth and ultimately some form of computation to take advantage of it. While computation, bandwidth, and storage density all keep going up, at some point the energy required to read, write, transmit and compute over all these Exabytes of data will become a significant burden to the world.

PCM and other forms of NVM such as Intel’s Optane PMEM, have brought a step change in how much data can be stored close to server CPUs today. And as, Optane PMEM doesn’t require refresh, it has also reduced the energy required to store and sustain that data over DRAM. I have no doubt that density, energy consumption and performance will continue to improve for these devices over the coming years, if not decades.

In the mean time, researchers are actively pursuing different classes of material that could replace or improve on PCM with even less power, better performance and higher densities. Berry Curvature Memory is the first I’ve seen that has several significant advantages over PCM today.

Berry Curvature Memory (BCM)

I spent some time trying to gain an understanding of Berry Curvatures.. As much as I can gather it’s a quantum-mechanical geometric effect that quantifies the topological characteristics of the entanglement of electrons in a crystal. Suffice it to say, it’s something that can be measured as a elecro-magnetic field that provides phase transitions (on-off) in a metallic crystal at the topological level. 

In the case of BCM, they used three to five atomically thin, mono-layers of  WTe2 (Tungsten Ditelluride), a Type II  Weyl semi-metal that exhibits super conductivity, high magneto-resistance, and the ability to alter interlayer sliding through the use of terahertz (Thz) radiation. 

It appears that by using BCM in a memory, 

Fig. 4| Layer-parity selective Berry curvature memory behavior in Td,↑ to Td,↓ stacking transition. a,
The nonlinear Hall effect measurement schematics. An applied current flow along the a axis results in the generation of nonlinear Hall voltage along the b axis, proportional to the Berry curvature dipole strength at the Fermi level. b, Quadratic amplitude of nonlinear transverse voltage at 2ω as a function of longitudinal current at ω. c, d, Electric field dependent longitudinal conductance (upper figure) and nonlinear Hall signal (lower figure) in trilayer WTe2 and four-layer WTe2 respectively. Though similar butterfly-shape hysteresis in longitudinal conductance are observed, the sign of the nonlinear Hall signal was observed to be reversed in the trilayer while maintaining unchanged in the four-layer crystal. Because the nonlinear Hall signal (V⊥,2ω / (V//,ω)2 ) is proportional to Berry curvature dipole strength, it indicates the flipping of Berry curvature dipole only occurs in trilayer. e, Schematics of layer-parity selective symmetry operations effectively transforming Td,↑ to Td,↓. The interlayer sliding transition between these two ferroelectric stackings is equivalent to an inversion operation in odd layer while a mirror operation respect to the ab plane in even layer. f, g, Calculated Berry curvature Ωc distribution in 2D Brillouin zone at the Fermi level for Td,↑ and Td,↓ in trilayer and four-layer WTe2. The symmetry operation analysis and first principle calculations confirm Berry curvature and its dipole sign reversal in trilayer while invariant in four-layer, leading to the observed layer-parity selective nonlinear Hall memory behavior.
  • To alter a memory cell takes “a few meV/unit cell, two orders of magnitude less than conventional bond rearrangement in phase change materials” (PCM). Which in laymen’s terms says it takes 100X less energy to change a bit than PCM.
  • To alter a memory cell it uses terahertz radiation (Thz) this uses pulses of light or other electromagnetic radiation whose wavelength is on the order of picoseconds or less to change a memory cell. This is 1000X faster than other PCM that exist today.
  • To construct a BCM memory cell takes between 13 and 16  atoms of W and Te2 constructed of 3 to 5 layers of atomically thin, WTe2 semi-metal.

While it’s hard to see in the figure above, the way this memory works is that the inner layer slides left to right with respect to the picture and it’s this realignment of atoms between the three or five layers that give rise to the changes in the Berry Curvature phase space or provide on-off switching.

To get from the lab to product is a long road but the fact that it has density, energy and speed advantages measured in multiple orders of magnitude certainly bode well for it’s potential to disrupt current PCM technologies.

Potential problems with BCM

Nonetheless, even though it exhibits superior performance characteritics with respect to PCM, there are a number of possible issues that could limit it’s use.

One concern (on my part) is that the inner-layer sliding may induce some sort of fatigue. Although, I’ve heard that mechanical fatigue at the atomic level is not nearly as much of a concern as one sees in (> atomic scale and) larger structures. I must assume this would induce some stress and as such, limit the (Write cycles) endurance of BCM.

Another possible concern is how to shrink size of the Thz radiation required to only write a small area of the material. Yes one memory cell can be measured bi the width of 3 atoms, but the next question is how far away do I need to place the next memory cell. The laser used in BCM focused down to ~1.5 μm. At this size it’s 1,000X bigger than the BCM memory cell width (~1.5 nm).

Yet another potential problem is that current BCM must be embedded in a continuous flow of liquid nitrogen (@80K). Unclear how much of a requirement this temperature is for BCM to function. But there are no computers nowadays that require this level of cooling.

Figure 3| Td,↑ to Td,↓ stacking transitions with preserved crystal orientation in Type II hysteresis. a,
in-situ SHG intensity evolution in Type II phase transition, driven by a pure E field sweep on a four-layer and a five-layer Td-WTe2 devices (indicated by the arrows). Both show butterfly-shape SHG intensity hysteresis responses as a signature of ferroelectric switching between upward and downward polarization phases. The intensity minima at turning points in four-layer and five-layer crystals show significant difference in magnitude, consistent with the layer dependent SHG contrast in 1T’ stacking. This suggests changes in stacking structures take place during the Type II phase transition, which may involve 1T’ stacking as the intermediate state. b, Raman spectra of both interlayer and intralayer vibrations of fully poled upward and downward polarization phases in the 5L sample, showing nearly identical characteristic phonons of polar Td crystals. c, SHG intensity of fully poled upward and downward polarization phases as a function of analyzer polarization angle, with fixed incident polarization along p direction (or b axis). Both the polarization patterns and lobe orientations of these two phases are almost the same and can be well fitted based on the second order susceptibility matrix of Pm space group (Supplementary Information Section I). These observations reveal the transition between Td,↑ and Td,↓ stacking orders is the origin of
Type II phase transition, through which the crystal orientations are preserved.

Finally, from my perspective, can such a memory can be stacked vertically, with a higher number of layers. Yes there are three to five layers of the WTe2 used in BCM but can you put another three to five layers on top of that, and then another. Although the researchers used three, four and five layer configurations, it appears that although it changed the amplitude of the Berry Curvature effect, it didn’t seem to add more states to the transition.. If we were to more layers of WTe2 would we be able to discern say 16 different states (like QLC NAND today).

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So there’s a ways to go to productize BCM. But, aside from eliminating the low-temperature requirements, everything else looks pretty doable, at least to me.

I think it would open up a whole new dimension of applications, if we had say 60TB of memory to compute with, don’t you think?

Comments?

[Updated the title from 60TB to PB to 36PB as I understood how much memory PMEM can provide today…, the Eds.]

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Storage that provides 100% performance at 99% full

A couple of weeks back we were talking with Qumulo at Storage Field Day 20 (SFD20) and they made mention that they were able to provide 100% performance at 99% full. Please see their video session during SFD20 (which can be seen here). I was a bit incredulous of this seeing as how every other modern storage system performance degrades long before they get to 99% capacity.

So I asked them to explain how this was possible. But before we get to that a little background on modern storage systems would be warranted.

The perils of log structured file systems

Most modern storage systems use a log structured file system where when they write data they write it to a sequential log and use a virtual addressing scheme to show where the data is located for that address, creating a (data) log of written blocks.

However, when data is overwritten, it leaves gaps in these data logs. These gaps need to be somehow recycled (squeezed out) in order to be able to be consumed as storage capacity. This recycling process is commonly called “garbage collection”.

Garbage collection does its work by reading heavily gapped log files and re-writing the old, but still current, data into a new log. This frees up those gaps to be reused. But garbage collection like this takes reading and writing of logs to free up space.

Now as log structured file systems get (70-80-90%) full, they need to spend more and more system time and effort (=performance) garbage collecting . This takes system (IO) performance away from normal host IO activity. Which is why I didn’t believe that Qumulo could offer 100% IO performance at 99% full.

But there was always another way to supply storage virtualization (read snapshotting) besides log files. Yes it might involve more metadata (table) management, but what it takes in more metadata, it gives back by requiring no garbage collection.

How Qumulo does without garbage collection

Qumulo has a scaled block store for a back end of their file and object cluster store. And yes it’s still a virtualized block store BUT it’s not a log structured file store.

It seems that there’s a virtual-to-physical mapping table that is used by Qumulo to determine the physical address of any virtual block in the file system. And files are allocated to virtual blocks directly through the use of B-tree metadata. These B-trees indicate which virtual blocks are in use by a file and its snapshots

If a host overwrites a data block. The block can be freed (if not being used in a snapshot) and placed on a freed block list and a new block is allocated in its place. The file’s allocated blocks b-tree is updated to reflect the new block and that’s it.

For snapshots, Qumulo uses something they call “write-out-of-place” process when data that a snapshot points to is overwritten. Again, it appears as if snapshots are some extra metadata associated with a file’s B-tree that defines the data in the snapshot.

The problem comes in when a file is deleted. If it’s a big enough file (TB-PB?), there could be millions to billions of blocks that have to be freed up. This would take entirely too long for a delete command, so this is done in the background. Qumulo calls this “reclaim delete“. So a delete of a big file unlinks the block B-tree from the directory and puts it on this reclaim delete work queue to free up these blocks later. Similarly, when a big snapshot is deleted, Qumulo performs a background process called “reclaim snapshot” for snapshot unique blocks.

As can be seen (it’s very hard to see given the coloration of the chart) from this screen shot of Qumulo’s session at SFD20, reclaim delete and reclaim snapshot are being done concurrently (in the background) with normal system IO. What’s interesting to note here is that reclaim IO (delete and snapshots) are going on all the time during the customers actual work. Why the write throughput drops significantly doing the the 27-29 of July is hard to understand. But the one case where it’s most serious (middle of July 28) reclaim IO also drops significantly. If reclaim IO were impacting write performance I would have expected it to have gone higher when write throughput went lower. But that’s not the case. From what I can see in the above reclaim IO has no impact on read or write throughput at this customer.

So essentially, by using a backing block store that does no garbage collection (not using a log structured file system), Qumulo is able to offer 100% system IO performance at 99% full – woah.

Can we back up a PB?

Tradition says no way. IT backup history says not on your life. Common sense would say never in a million years.

Most organizations with PB of data or more, depend on remote replication to protect against data center outage or massive loss of data. This of course costs ~2X your original data center. And for some organizations one copy is not enough, so ~3X .

I don’t know what a PB scale data storage costs these days but I can’t believe it’s under a couple Million $ USD in hw and sw costs and probably at least another Million or so in OpEx/year. Multiply that by 2 or 3X and you’re now talking real money.

How could backup help?

Well for one you wouldn’t need replicas, so that would cut your hw & sw acquisition costs by a factor of 2 or 3. But backup storage is not free either. So you’d probably need to add back 30-50% of the original data center in hw & sw costs for backups.

You certainly wouldn’t need as many admins. And power for backup storage should also be substantially less. So maybe your OpEx would only be 1.5X in total for the original PB and its backups.

But what could possibly back up a PB of data?

We were talking with Igneous at Cloud Field Day 8 (CFD8, see their video here)  a couple of weeks back and they said they could and do backup PBs of data for customers today. A while back, e also talked with them on a GreyBeards on Storage podcast.

The problems with backing up a PB seem insurmountable. First you have to be able to scan a PB of data. This means looking into multiple file systems on many different hardware platforms, across potentially multiple data centers, and that’s just to get a baseline of what all needs to be backed up.

Then at some point you actually have to store all that data on backup storage. So, to gain some cost advantage, you’d want to compress and deduplicate a PB of data, so that the first full backup wouldn’t take a full PB of backup storage.

Then of course you have to transfer a PB of data to your backup storage, in something that wouldn’t take months to perform. And that just gets you the first full backup.

Next, comes the daily scan of what’s changed. This has to re-scan your PB of data to find that 100TB or so, that’s changed over the last 24 hrs. Sometime after that scan completes, then all that 100TB or so of changed data needs to be compressed, deduped and transferred again to backup storage

And if that’s not enough, you have to do it all over again, every day, from now on, almost forever. And data continues to grow. So 1PB today is likely to be 2PB of more in 12 months (it’s great to be in the storage business). 

So those are the challenges. How can it be done, effectively, day in and day out, enough so that IT can depend on their data being backed up.

Igneous to the rescue…

First, Igneous came out of stealth a while back (listen to our podcast) with a couple of unique capabilities needed for massive data repository discovery and analysis. That is they built a unique engine to scan and index PB scale data repositories. This was so they couldd provide administrators better visibility into their PB scale data repositories. But this isn’t about that product, it’s about backup. 

But some of the capabilities they needed to support that product helped them perform backups as well. For instance, their scan needed to handle PBs of data. They came up with AdaptiveSCAN, which didn’t use standard NFS and SMB data transfer protocols to gain access to file metadata. To open a file on NFS or SMB takes quite a lot of NFS or SMB transactions. But to access metadata only, one doesn’t have to use all those NFS and SMB capabilities, it can be done with much less overhead even when using NFS or SMB.

Of course having a way to scan Billions of files was a major accomplishment, but then where do you put all that metadata. And how can you access it effectively to support backup up a PB data repository. So they needed some serious data indexing capabilities and so came up with InfiniteINDEX

Now a trillion item index, seems a bit much, even for PB scale repositories. But my guess is they have eyes on taking their PB scale backups and going after even bigger fish,. That is offering backups for EB scale data repository. And that might just take a trillion item index

Next, there’s moving PB or even TB of data quickly is no small trick. As the development team at Igneous mostly came from unstructured data providers, they also understood and have access to APIs for most storage vendors (NetApp, Dell-EMC Isilon, Pure FlashBlade, Qumulo, etc.). As such, where available, they utilized those native vendor storage API calls to help them move data rather than having to Open an NFS or SMB file and Read it. 

Of course, even doing all that, moving 100TBs of data around or scanning PB sized data repositories is going to take a lot of processing and IO bandwidth to do in a reasonable period of time. 

So another capability they developed is massive parallelism. That is being able to distribute scan, indexing or data movement work, out to multiple systems. In that fashion it can be accomplished in significantly less wall clock time. 

Well with all that, they pretty much had the guts of a backup application system for PB data repositories but they still didn’t have the glue to put it all together. But recently they announced just that a Igneous’s DataProtect, a full scale backup application for PB of data. 

I suppose I haven’t done justice to all of what they have developed or talked about at their session, so I would suggest viewing their talk at CFD8 and listening to our GBoS podcast to learn more. They did demo their product at CFD8 but I believe it was a canned demo.

I didn’t think I’d see the day when some vendor would offer backup services for PBs of data let alone be shooting for more, but there you have it. Igneous means to take your PB scale data repositories and make them as easy to operate as TB scale data repositories. They call that democratizing data.

Comments?

See these other CFD8 bloggers write ups on Igneous.

CFD8  – Igneous Follow Up  by Nate Avery (@Nathaniel_Avery)

Picture credit(s): All from screen saves during Igneous’s session at CFD8

DNA storage using nicks

Read an article the other day in Scientific American (“Punch card” DNA …) which was reporting on a Nature Magazine Article (DNA punch cards for storing data… ). The articles discussed a new approach to storing (and encoding) data into DNA sequences.

We have talked about DNA storage over the years (most recently, see our Random access DNA object storage post) so it’s been under study for almost a decade.

In prior research on DNA storage, scientists encoded data directly into the nucleotides used to store genetic information. As you may recall, there are two complementary nucleotides A-T (adenine-thymine) and G-C (guanine-cytosine) that constitute the genetic code in a DNA strand. One could use one of these pairs to encode a 1 bit and the other for a 0 bit and just lay them out along a DNA strand.

The main problem with nucleotide encoding of data in DNA is that it’s slow to write and read and very error prone (storing data in DNA separate nucleotides is a lossy data storage). Researchers have now come up with a better way.

Using DNA nicks to store bits

One could encode information in DNA by utilizing the topology of a DNA strand. Each DNA strand is actually made up of a sugar phosphate back bone with a nucleotide (A, C, G or T) hanging off of it, and then a hydrogen bond to its nucleotide complement (T, G, C or A, respectively) which is attached to another sugar phosphate backbone.

It appears that one can deform the sugar phosphate back bone at certain positions and retain an intact DNA strand. It’s in this deformation that the researchers are encoding bits and they call this a “DNA nick”.

Writing DNA nick data

The researchers have taken a standard DNA strand (E-coli), and identified unique sites on it that they can nick to encode data. They have identified multiple (mostly unique) sites for nick data along this DNA, the scientists call “registers” but we would call sectors or segments. Each DNA sector can contain a certain amount of nick data, say 5 to 10 bits. The selected DNA strand has enough unique sectors to record 80 bits (10 bytes) of data. Not quite a punch card (80 bytes of data) but it’s early yet.

Each register or sector is made up of 450 base (nucleotide) pairs. As DNA has two separate strands connected together, the researchers can increase DNA nick storage density by writing both strands creating a sort of two sided punch card. They use this other or alternate (“anti-sense”) side of the DNA strand nicks for the value “2”. We would have thought they would have used the absent of a nick in this alternate strand as being “3” but they seem to just use it as another way to indicate “0” .

The researchers found an enzyme they could use to nick a specific position on a DNA strand called the PfAgo (Pyrococcus furiosus Argonaute) enzyme. The enzyme can de designed to nick distinct locations and register (sectors) along the DNA strand. They designed 1024 (2**10) versions of this enzyme to create all possible 10 bit data patterns for each sector on the DNA strand.

Writing DNA nick data is done via adding the proper enzyme combinations to a solution with the DNA strand. All sector writes are done in parallel and it takes about 40 minutes.

Also the same PfAgo enzyme sequence is able to write (nick) multiple DNA strands without additional effort. So we can replicate the data as many times as there are DNA strands in the solution, or replicating the DNA nick data for disaster recovery.

Reading DNA nick data

Reading the DNA nick data is a bit more complicated.

In Figure 1 the read process starts by by denaturing (splitting dual strands into single strands dsDNA) and then splitting the single strands (ssDNA) up based on register or sector length which are then sequenced. The specific register (sector) sequences are identified in the sequence data and can then be read/decoded and placed in the 80 bit string. The current read process is destructive of the DNA strand (read once).

There was no information on the read time but my guess is it takes hours to perform. Another (faster) approach uses a “two-dimensional (2D) solid-state nanopore membrane” that can read the nick information directly from a DNA string without dsDNA-ssDNA steps. Also this approach is non-destructive, so the same DNA strand could be read multiple times.

Other storage characteristics of nicked DNA

Given the register nature of the nicked DNA data organization, it appears that data can be read and written randomly, rather than sequentially. So nicked DNA storage is by definition, a random access device.

Although not discussed in the paper, it appears as if the DNA nicked data can be modified. That is the same DNA string could have its data be modified (written multiple times).

The researcher claim that nicked DNA storage is so reliable that there is no need for error correction. I’m skeptical but it does appear to be more reliable than previous generations of DNA storage encoding. However, there is a possibility that during destructive read out we could lose a register or two. Yes one would know that the register bits are lost which is good. But some level of ECC could be used to reconstruct any lost register bits, with some reduction in data density.

The one significant advantage of DNA storage has always been its exceptional data density or bits stored per volume. Nicked storage reduces this volumetric density significantly, i.e, 10 bits per 450 (+ some additional DNA base pairs required for register spacing) base pairs or so nicked DNA storage reduces DNA storage volumetric density by at least a factor of 45X. Current DNA storage is capable of storing 215M GB per gram or 215 PB/gram. Reducing this by let’s say 100X, would still be a significant storage density at ~2PB/gram.

Comments?

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Gaming is driving storage innovation at WDC

I was at SFD19 a couple of weeks ago and Western Digital supplied the afternoon sessions on their technology (see videos here). Phil Bullinger gave a great session on HDDs and the data center market. Carl Che did a session on HDD technology and discussed on how 5G was going to ramp up demand for video streaming and IoT data requirements. Of course one of the sessions was on their SSD and NAND technologies.

But the one session that was pretty new and interesting to me was their discussion on how Gaming and how it’s driving system innovation. Eric Spaneut, VP of Client Computing was the main speaker for the session but they also had Leah Schoeb, Sr. Developer Manager at AMD, to discuss the gaming market and its impact on systems technology.

There were over 100M viewers of the League of Legends World Championships, with a peak viewership of 44M viewers. To put that in perspective the 2020 Super Bowl had 102M viewers. So gaming championships today are almost as big as the Super Bowl in viewership.

Gaming demands higher performing systems

Gaming users are driving higher compute processors/core counts, better graphics cards, faster networking and better storage. Gamers are building/buying high end desktop systems that cost $30K or more, dwarfing the cost of most data center server hardware.

Their gaming rigs are typically liquid cooled, have LEDs all over and are encased in glass. I could never understand why my crypto mine graphics cards had LEDs all over them. The reason was they were intended for gaming systems not crypto mines.

Besides all the other components in these rigs, they are also buying special purpose storage. Yes storage capacity requirements are growing for games but performance and thermal/cooling have also become major considerations.

Western Digital has dedicated a storage line to gaming called WD Black. It includes both HDDs and SSDs (internal NVMe and external USB/SATA attached) at the moment. But Leah mentioned that gaming systems are quickly moving away from HDDs onto SSDs.

Thermal characteristics matter

Of the WDC’s internal NVMe SSDs (WD Black SN750s), one comes with a heat sink attached. It turns out SSD IO performance can be throttled back due to heat. The heatsink allows the SSD to operate at higher temperatures and offer more bandwidth than the one without. Presumably, it allows the electronics to stay cooler and thus stay running at peak performance.

I believe their WD Black HDDs have internal fans in them to keep them cool. And of course they all come in black with LEDs surrounding them.

Storage can play an important part in the “gaming experience” for users once you get beyond network bottlenecks for downloading. For downloading and storage perform well . however for game loading and playing/editing videos/other gaming tasks, NVMe SSDs offer a significant performance boost over SATA SDDs and HDDs.

But not all gaming is done on high-end gaming desktop systems. Today a lot of gaming is done on dedicated consoles or in the cloud. Cloud based gaming is mostly just live streaming of video to a client device, whether it be a phone, tablet, console, etc. Live game streaming is almost exactly like video on demand but with more realtime input/output and more compute cores/graphic engines to perform the gaming activity and to generate the screens in “real” time. So having capacity and performance to support multiple streams AND the performance needed to create the live, real time experience takes a lot of server compute & graphics hardware, networking AND storage.

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So wherever gamers go, storage is becoming more critical in their environment. Both WDC and AMD see this market as strategic and growing, whose requirements are unique enough to demand special purpose products. They bothy are responding with dedicated hardware and product lines tailored to gaming needs.

Photo credit(s): All graphics in this post are from WDC’s gaming session video stream

Where should IoT data be processed – part 1

I was at FlashMemorySummit 2019 (FMS2019) this week and there was a lot of talk about computational storage (see our GBoS podcast with Scott Shadley, NGD Systems). There was also a lot of discussion about IoT and the need for data processing done at the edge (or in near-edge computing centers/edge clouds).

At the show, I was talking with Tom Leyden of Excelero and he mentioned there was a real need for some insight on how to determine where IoT data should be processed.

For our discussion let’s assume a multi-layered IoT architecture, with 1000s of sensors at the edge, 100s of near-edge processing/multiplexing stations, and 1 to 3 core data center or cloud regions. Data comes in from the sensors, is sent to near-edge processing/multiplexing and then to the core data center/cloud.

Data size

Dans la nuit des images (Grand Palais) by dalbera (cc) (from flickr)
Dans la nuit des images (Grand Palais) by dalbera (cc) (from flickr)

When deciding where to process data one key aspect is the size of the data. Tin GB or TB but given today’s world, can be PB as well. This lone parameter has multiple impacts and can affect many other considerations, such as the cost and time to transfer the data, cost of data storage, amount of time to process the data, etc. All of these sub-factors include the size of the data to be processed.

Data size can be the largest single determinant of where to process the data. If we are talking about GB of data, it could probably be processed anywhere from the sensor edge, to near-edge station, to core. But if we are talking about TB the processing requirements and time go up substantially and are unlikely to be available at the sensor edge, and may not be available at the near-edge station. And PB take this up to a whole other level and may require processing only at the core due to the infrastructure requirements.

Processing criticality

Human or machine safety may depend on quick processing of sensor data, e. g. in a self-driving car or a factory floor, flood guages, etc.. In these cases, some amount of data (sufficient to insure human/machinge safety) needs to be done at the lowest point in the hierarchy, with the processing power to perform this activity.

This could be in the self-driving car or factory automation that controls a mechanism. Similar situations would probably apply for any robots and auto pilots. Anywhere some IoT sensor array was used to control an entity, that could jeopardize the life of human(s) or the safety of machines would need to do safety level processing at the lowest level in the hierarchy.

If processing doesn’t involve safety, then it could potentially be done at the near-edge stations or at the core. .

Processing time and infrastructure requirements

Although we talked about this in data size above, infrastructure requirements must also play a part in where data is processed. Yes sensors are getting more intelligent and the same goes for near-edge stations. But if you’re processing the data multiple times, say for deep learning, it’s probably better to do this where there’s a bunch of GPUs and some way of keeping the data pipeline running efficiently. The same applies to any data analytics that distributes workloads and data across a gaggle of CPU cores, storage devices, network nodes, etc.

There’s also an efficiency component to this. Computational storage is all about how some workloads can better be accomplished at the storage layer. But the concept applies throughout the hierarchy. Given the infrastructure requirements to process the data, there’s probably one place where it makes the most sense to do this. If it takes a 100 CPU cores to process the data in a timely fashion, it’s probably not going to be done at the sensor level.

Data information funnel

We make the assumption that raw data comes in through sensors, and more processed data is sent to higher layers. This would mean at a minimum, some sort of data compression/compaction would need to be done at each layer below the core.

We were at a conference a while back where they talked about updating deep learning neural networks. It’s possible that each near-edge station could perform a mini-deep learning training cycle and share their learning with the core periodicals, which could then send this information back down to the lowest level to be used, (see our Swarm Intelligence @ #HPEDiscover post).

All this means that there’s a minimal level of processing of the data that needs to go on throughout the hierarchy between access point connections.

Pipe availability

binary data flow

The availability of a networking access point may also have some bearing on where data is processed. For example, a self driving car could generate TB of data a day, but access to a high speed, inexpensive data pipe to send that data may be limited to a service bay and/or a garage connection.

So some processing may need to be done between access point connections. This will need to take place at lower levels. That way, there would be no need to send the data while the car is out on the road but rather it could be sent whenever it’s attached to an access point.

Compliance/archive requirements

Any sensor data probably needs to be stored for a long time and as such will need access to a long term archive. Depending on the extent of this data, it may help dictate where processing is done. That is, if all the raw data needs to be held, then maybe the processing of that data can be deferred until it’s already at the core and on it’s way to archive.

However, any safety oriented data processing needs to be done at the lowest level and may need to be reprocessed higher up in the hierachy. This would be done to insure proper safety decisions were made. And needless the say all this data would need to be held.

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I started this post with 40 or more factors but that was overkill. In the above, I tried to summarize the 6 critical factors which I would use to determine where IoT data should be processed.

My intent is in a part 2 to this post to work through some examples. If there’s anyone example that you feel may be instructive, please let me know.

Also, if there’s other factors that you would use to determine where to process IoT data let me know.

Clouds, an existential threat to vendors – part 1

Was at a conference last month where there was discussion of the “cloudless” future. This is so wrong, clouds are a threat to every IT hardware and software vendor out there and it’s not going away

The hardware side is easy to see.

Clouds threat to IT hardware vendors

On the storage side, the big hyperscalers have adopted software defined storage from the git go. Smaller ones are migrating that way as well and it’s even impacting data centers as the big virtualization software vendors release more and more functionality in SwDefStorage

And on the networking side, the clouds were an early adopter of Openflow, software defined networking. OpenFlow gear still requires specialized hardware but mostly it’s just a server with PCIe accelerator cards that perform high speed switching. Ditto the prior paragraph here as the virtualization vendors are also moving their networking to SwDefNetworking.

Luckily for servers there’s no such thing as a SwDefServer, yet. But server offerings are under just as big a threat from the cloud. Hyper-scalars are sophisticated enough to design their own server hardware and have it manufactured to spec. The smaller ones can make use of whitebox servers. Both of them, at the volumes they consume servers, can force a race to the bottom on pricing.

So server vendors are being relegated to the data center for the most part. And as data center servers become more powerful, virtualized environments need less of them.

The threat to IT software vendors

Make no mistake about it, software is under just as much threat as hardware. AWS and Oracle was probably the best example of how this works. Oracle was once a profitable niche market on AWS. Today, Oracle is not even available on AWS marketplace anymore.

This sort of dynamic can happen to any solution where acceptable open source alternatives exist. With the cloud’s sophistication and volumes they can easily take the sting out of using open source by providing ease of deployment, use and maintenance along with performance scalability. That makes running open source on clouds as easy as any packaged solution.

Internet Splat Map by jurvetson (cc) (from flickr)
Internet Splat Map by jurvetson (cc) (from flickr)

Albeit, maybe the cloud may not offer the support or hand-holding one obtains with packaged software. But open source can be very responsive to bugs/security exposures. Cloud providers can take the time to make their open source solutions bullet proof. And with 1000s to 10,000s of users, running them at scale, it should be easy enough to find any high profile bugs.

Even all those software vendors that make software that executes only on the cloud, to make it run better, more secure or to add some unique functionally are at risk. All these vendors ultimately will suffer by “death from marketplace success“. As they become successful and cloud vendors know inherently how successful they are, they become more interesting to the cloud. Over time more successful solutions will attract cloud provider functionally-equivalent, open source alternatives, that will push them out of the clouds marketplace.

Dealing with the threat to hardware vendors

Hardware vendors have four grand strategies to address the cloud threat.

  1. Stick head in sand, hope it goes away (or at least takes a long time to kill them off). There are still some major vendors with this mindset. Yes, slowly but surely they are coming around to see the light but they think they have a long enough runway to hold on until something better comes along.
  2. Co-opt the cloud by providing unique, hardware capabilities in their cloud environment. There are a few hardware vendors that have adopted this strategy. This buys them more time as they can depend on current data center revenues and over time augment this with cloud revenues.
  3. Join the race to the bottom to become a supplier to clouds. Most hardware vendors started out in a highly competitive environment, but over time they have lost their way (found a higher profitability niche). But lurking in their past somewhere, there’s a competitiveness streak that’s dying to come out. The race to the bottom may never be as profitable as data centers but there’s significant revenue to be had here.
  4. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that span multiple clouds. Not exactly creating a hybrid cloud but rather providing a multi-cloud hardware service. Hardware functionality that can be accessed from multiple clouds can enjoy some advantages of the cloud but at the same time generate data center like revenues..

I may be missing some grand hardware vendor strategies but as I’ve talked with hardware vendors over time these seem to be the main ones moving ahead.

I’ve tried a couple of times to talk to vendors in the #1 mindset above about the futility of their approach. Mostly, I get ignored or at best politely brushed off as being alarmist. Their main hope is that the data center continues on in the present environment and that they can retain their dominance there.

Maybe they have a point. The 1960s mainframe environment still exists today. And IBM still remains dominant there, and generates profits there. But it just doesn’t matter that much to IT anymore. IT has moved on. .

Richard (Dick) Nafzger with Apollo data tape by Goddard Photo and Video (cc) (from flickr)
Richard (Dick) Nafzger with Apollo data tape by Goddard Photo and Video (cc) (from flickr)

Something similar will happen to IT’s data center. Yes it will still exist forever, and perhaps some vendors can continue to profit there.

But the vast majority of IT workloads will be moving to the cloud over time, relegating this to a smaller (proportionally) niche market. They’ve been saying tape is dead since 1967, but it’s still alive, it’s just moved from being a large market to a smaller one (proportionally).

The #2 mindset vendors have a clearer view of wha’s happening with the cloud. They are moving select hardware functionality out to the cloud as soon as they are able. Some are even placing their hardware in cloud provider availability zones (data centers) to support this. We all hope they enjoy lasting success doing this.

But ultimately they to, shall suffer the same fate as software vendors above, due to the cloud’s death by marketplace success. The more successful they become, the higher the likelihood that the cloud providers will go after them with their own functionally-equivalent, software defined solution.

I’m not privy to the contracts between hardware vendors and cloud providers bit perhaps this later transition, to outright competition, can be forestalled enough to make the cloud providers reluctant to compete with them. But hardware success can only lead to more cloud interest and no contract can protect against every contingency.

Those vendors adopting the #3 mindset have to return to their competitiveness roots. Doing this will never be as profitable as today’s data center. So the transition will be painful, but they need to do this soon, while they still have some profits coming from data center sales. The sooner they can deploy these $s to fix supply chains, manufacturing quality/production, drastically slim down marketing and sales, the faster they can start supplying the clouds with appropriate hardware. Profitability will suffer early on but it may never fully recover.

The #4 mindset applies equally well to software vendors as well as hardware vendors but the hardware group seems to be doing this already. Many storage vendors have multi-cloud solutions with hardware positioned in cloud-adjacent facilities that can be accessed from multiple clouds. Such services have to be consumable like any cloud service. But once in place they have a unique value proposition, the ability to move work and data from one cloud to another.

But the only thing stopping cloud providers doing something similar is that they don’t want to help any current user to use a different cloud. Again, depending on how successful this multi-cloud approach becomes, there’s nothing prohibiting the cloud providers from providing similar functionality.

Dealing with the threat to software vendors

Software vendors see 4 grand strategies to deal with the cloud threat:

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them, and create their own cloud. IBM exemplifies this best but one can see this with Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others. If they can create their own cloud, they can start to compete with cloud providers on an equal footing. Yes they will be smaller but they can enjoy many of the same benefits of bigger clouds, just not as much. .
  2. Offer their software services/stack on the cloud providers. This is similar to the hardware vendors #2 mindset. Yet this has suffered from death by marketplace success since the inception.
  3. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that fuse the data center and the cloud environments. Thus creating hybrid cloud solutions that span the data center-cloud environment which seem to have a longer runway. But this lasts only as long as the data center is a significant market.
  4. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that span cloud provider vendors. Multi-cloud solutions are more apparent for hardware, but nothing prohibits a software vendor from offering services that spans clouds.

I may be missing a few grand strategies here but these seem to be the major ones software vendors are using to deal with the cloud. And just like hardware vendors above, much of the success of these strategies (at least #2,3 &4) depends on flying under the radar of cloud providers. Limiting your success may give you some time to eek out a decent revenue/profitability stream, while the cloud provider kills off the more successful solutions ahead of you. But you’re all living on borrowed time.

The most interesting one is #1. Yes economies of scale will matter, which will make their long term viability a concern. But at least you can be on the same playing field. Most of these companies have sizable treasure chests and if invest serious money on their own clouds, they may have a chance to survive.

Cloud providers are taking their time

The other thing that’s prolonging the data center and correspondingly vendors existence is cloud providers expenses. With all their hardware volumes, use of white box or own designed hardware and open source software, does it make any sense that IT could provide matching services in data centers by themselves.

But something is chewing up their revenues, Maybe it’s marketing, customer acquisition, software/hardware development or support expenses. I tend to think it’s trying to keep pace with customer growth. They end up having to anticipate this growth ahead of time and position hardware, software and services before the customers exist to use them.

I don’t think there’s anything more mysterious to their lack of profitability than that. They all want all the customers they can get. They are have significant growth and they are all charging a premium for their service. However, I may be wrong.

But how long can such hyper-growth last. At some point, as more and more IT organizations move to the cloud this growth will slow, prices will start to come down and it will set off a vicious cycle, more cloud success brings more volumes, less overhead and should lower prices which brings more cloud success.

More cloud success brings less volumes for hardware and software vendors, more overhead and ultimately higher prices.

None of the above solutions seem that attractive to hardware or software vendors but I see only a few ways forward for all of them.

In part 2, I’ll discuss some out of the box strategies that move beyond the data center and the cloud that may be just the way forward for hardware and software vendors need to take the cloud on.

Comments?