114: GreyBeards talk computational storage with Tong Zhang, Co-Founder & Chief Scientist, ScaleFlux

Seeing as how one topic on last years FMS2020 wrap-up with Jim Handy was the rise of computational storage and it’s been a long time (see GreyBeards talk with Scott Shadley at NGD Systems) since we discussed this, we thought it time to check in on the technology. So we reached out to Dr. Tong Zhang, Chief Scientist and Co-founder, ScaleFlux to see what’s going on. ScaleFlux is seeing rising adoption of their product in hyper-scalers as well as large enterprises. Their computational storage is a programmable FPGA based 4TB and 8TB SSD.

Tong was very knowledgeable on current industry trends (Moore’s law slowing & others) that have created an opening for computational storage and other outboard compute. He also is well versed into how some of the worlds biggest customers are using the technology to work faster and cheaper in their data centers. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

At the start Tong mentioned Alibaba’s use of ScaleFlux’s transparent, line speed, outboard encryption/decryption and compression/decompression. And, depending on the data, they can see compression ratios far exceeding 2:1. As such, customers not only benefit from a cheaper $/GB but can also see better NAND endurance and higher performance.

Hosts can do compression and encryption but doing so takes a lot of CPU cycles. It turns out that compression is more compute intensive than encryption. Tong said that most modern cores can encrypt/decrypt at 1GB/sec but, depending on the compression algorithm, can only compress at 40 to 100MB/sec. But in any case doing so on the host consumes a lot of CPU instruction cycles. With ScaleFlux, they can compress and decompress at PCIe bus speeds.

Most storage controllers that offer compression/decompression must have some sort of LBA (logical block address) virtualization. Because while the host may be writing 512 or 4096 byte blocks, what’s actually written to the NAND is more like, 231 or 1999 bytes. So packing these odd, variable length blocks into NAND blocks can become a problem. But most SSDs already have a flash translation layer (FTL) where LBA addresses are mapped, over time, to different physical NAND page/block addresses. ScaleFlux has combined support for LBA virtualization and FTL into the same process and by doing so, they reduce IO overhead to perform better.

ScaleFlux’s drive is an NVMe SSD, which already supports great native response times but when you are transferring 1/2 or less of (compressed) data from the host onto NAND, you can reduce latencies even more. .

Although their current generation product is based on TLC NAND they are working on the next generation which will support QLC. And the benefits of writing and reading less data should also help QLC endurance and performance.

Although ScaleFlux is seeing great adoption with just outboard transparent compression and encryption, there is more that could be done, For example,

  • Filtering query’s at the drive rather than at the host. If customers can send a search key/phrase or other filtering request directly to the drive, the drive can pass over all it’s data and send back just the data that matches that filter request.
  • Transcoding and other data format changes. Although transcoding makes a lot of sense to do outboard, Tong also mentioned format changes. We asked him to clarify and he said consider a row based database that needs to be accessed in columnar format. If the drive could change the format from one to the other, it opens up more analytics tool sets.

At the moment, ScaleFlux engineering teams are the ones that program the FPGA to perform outboard functionality. But in a future release, they plan to adding ARM cores in a SoC, which can handle more general purpose outboard functionality as code.

Because of this added complexity of compression, encryption and other outboard logic, we asked Tong what power loss protection was available at the drive level. Tong assured us that once data has been received by their device, it is maintained across a power failure with CAPs and other logic to offload it.

Tong also mentioned that Intel, AWS and the NVMe standard committee are looking at adding some computational storage support into the NVMe standard, so applications and host software can invoke and maybe modify outboard functionality on the fly. Sort of like loading containers of functionality to run on the fly on an SSD drive.

Dr. Tong Zhang, Chief Scientist and Co-fonder, ScaleFlux

Dr. Tong Zhang is a well-established researcher with significant contributions to data storage systems and VLSI signal processing. Dr. Zhang is responsible for developing key techniques and algorithms for ScaleFlux’s Computational Storage products and exploring their use in mainstream application domains.

He is currently a Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). His current and past research span over database, filesystem, solid-state and magnetic data storage devices and systems, digital signal processing and communication, error correction coding, VLSI architectures, and computer architecture.

He has published over 150 technical papers at prestigious USENIX/IEEE/ACM conferences and journals with the citation h-index of 36, and has served as general and technical program chairs for several premier conferences. Among his many research accomplishments, he made pioneering contributions to establishing flash memory signal processing and enabling practical implementation of low-density parity-check (LDPC) codecs. He received two best paper awards and has over 20 issued/pending US patent applications.

He holds BS/MS degrees in EE from the Xi’an Jiaotong University, China, and PhD degree in ECE from the University of Minnesota.

86: Greybeards talk FMS19 wrap up and flash trends with Jim Handy, General Director, Objective Analysis

This is our annual Flash Memory Summit podcast with Jim Handy, General Director, Objective Analysis. It’s the 5th time we have had Jim on our show. Jim is also an avid blogger writing about memory and SSD at TheMemoryGuy and TheSSDGuy, respectively.

NAND market trends

Jim started off our discussion on the significant price drop in the NAND market over the last two years. He said that prices ($/GB) have dropped 60% last year and are projected to drop about 30% this year.

The problem is over production and as vendors are prohibited from dropping prices below cost, they tend to flatten out at production cost. NAND pricing will remain there until supplies start tightening again. Jim doesn’t see that happening until 2021.

He says although this NAND price drops don’t end up reducing SSD prices, it does allow us to buy more SSD storage for the same price. So maybe back earlier this century NAND cost $10K/GB, now it’s around $0.05/GB.

Jim also mentioned that Chinese NAND fabs should start coming online in 2021 too. They have been spending lots of money trying to get their own NAND manufacturing running. Jim said the reason they want to do this is because the Chinese are spending more $s on chips , than they do for oil.

Computational storage, a bright spot

At the show, computational storage (for more hear our GBoS podcast with Scott Shadley, NGD Systems) was hot again this year. Jim took a shot at defining computational storage and talked about the proliferation of ARM cores in SSDs. Keith mentioned that Moore’s law is making the incremental cost of adding more cores close to zero.

Jim said SAMSUNG already have 6 ARM cores in their SSDs, but most other vendors use 3 cores. I met with NetInt at the show who are focused on computational storage for video transcoding. Keith doesn’t think this would be a good fit, because it takes a lot of computation. But maybe as it’s easily distributable (out to a gaggle of SSDs) and it’s data intensive it might work ok. Jim also mentioned while adding cores may be cheap, increasing memory (DRAM) is not.

According to Jim, hyper-scalars are starting to buy computational storage technology. He’s not sure if they are just trying it out or have some real work running on the technology.

SCM news

We talked about Toshiba’s new XC flash and SSDs. Jim said this is just SLC NAND (expensive $/GB and high endurance) with increased parallelism and reduced latency data paths. Samsung’s Z-NAND is similar. Toshiba claims XL Flash SSDs are another storage class memory (SCM, see our 3DX blog post). Toshiba are pricing XL Flash SSDs at about 10X the $/GB price of 3D TLC NAND, or roughly the same as Optane SSDs.

We next turned to Optane DC PM, which Intel is selling at a loss but as it works only with Cascade Lake CPUs, can help increase CPU adoption. So Intel can absorb Optane DC PM losses by selling more (highly profitable) Cascade Lake systems.

Keith mentioned that SAP HANA now works with Cascade Lake-Optane DC PM. This is driving up demand for the new DC PM and new CPUs. Keith said with the new larger size in memory databases from DC PM, HANA able to do more work, increasing Cascade Lake-Optane DC PM-SAP HANA adoption.

Micron also manufacturers 3DX. Jim said they are in an enviable position as they can . supply the chips (at costs) to Intel, so they know chip volumes and can see what Intel is charging for the technology. So, if at some point, it has runway to become profitable, they can easily enter as a sole secondary source for the technology.

Other NAND news

How high can 3D TLC NAND go? Jim said most 3D NAND sold on the market is 64 layers high but suppliers are already shipping more layers than that. All NAND suppliers, bar one, have said their next generation 3D TLC NAND will be over 100 layers. Some years back one vendor said the technology could go up to 500 layers. This year Samsung, said they see the technology going to 800 layers.

We’ve heard of SLC, MLC, TLC and QLC but at the show there was talk of PLC or five level cell NAND technology. If they can make the technology successful, PLC should reduce manufacturing costs, another 10% ($/GB).

We discussed a lot more that was highlighted at the show, including PCIe fabric/composable infrastructure, zoned (NVMe) name spaces (redux SMR disks) and the ongoing success of the show. We had a brief discussion on when if ever NAND costs will be less than disk ($/GB).

The podcast is a little under ~40 minutes. Jim is an old friend, who is extremely knowledgeable about NAND & DRAM technology as well as semiconductor markets in general. Jim’s always been a kick to talk with. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Jim Handy, General Director, Objective Analysis

Jim Handy of Objective Analysis has over 35 years in the electronics industry including 20 years as a leading semiconductor and SSD industry analyst. Early in his career he held marketing and design positions at leading semiconductor suppliers including Intel, National Semiconductor, and Infineon.

A frequent presenter at trade shows, Mr. Handy is known for his technical depth, accurate forecasts, widespread industry presence and volume of publication.

He has written hundreds of market reports, articles for trade journals, and white papers, and is frequently interviewed and quoted in the electronics trade press and other media. 

He posts blogs at www.TheMemoryGuy.com, and www.TheSSDguy.com

78: GreyBeards YE2018 IT industry wrap-up podcast

In this, our yearend industry wrap up episode, we discuss trends and technology impacting the IT industry in 2018 and what we can see ahead for 2019 and first up is NVMeoF

NVMeoF has matured

In the prior years, NVMeoF was coming from startups, but last year it’s major vendors like IBM FlashSystem, Dell EMC PowerMAX and NetApp AFF releasing new NVMeoF storage systems. Pure Storage was arguably earliest with their NVMeoF JBOF.

Dell EMC, IBM and NetApp were not far behind this curve and no doubt see it as an easy way to reduce response time without having to rip and replace enterprise fabric infrastructure.

In addition, NVMeoFstandards have finally started to stabilize. With the gang of startups, standards weren’t as much of an issue as they were more than willing to lead, ahead of standards. But major storage vendors prefer to follow behind standards committees.

As another example, VMware showed off an NVMeoF JBOF for vSAN. A JBoF like this improves vSAN storage efficiency for small clusters. Howard described how this works but with vSAN having direct access to shared storage, it can reduce data and server protection requirements for storage. Especially, when dealing with small clusters of servers becoming more popular these days to host application clusters.

The other thing about NVMeoF storage is that NVMe SSDs have also become very popular. We are seeing them come out in everyone’s servers and storage systems. Servers (and storage systems) hosting 24 NVMe SSDs is just not that unusual anymore. For the price of a PCIe switch, one can have blazingly fast, direct access to a TBs of NVMe SSD storage.

HCI reaches critical mass

HCI has also moved out of the shadows. We recently heard news thet HCI is outselling CI. Howard and I attribute this to the advances made in VMware’s vSAN 6.2 and the appliance-ification of HCI. That and we suppose NVMe SSDs (see above).

HCI makes an awful lot of sense for application clusters that VMware is touting these days. CI was easy but an HCI appliance cluster is much, simpler to deploy and manage

For VMware HCI, vSAN Ready Nodes are available from just about any server vendor in existence. With ready nodes, VARs and distributors can offer an HCI appliance in the channel, just like the majors. Yes, it’s not the same as a vendor supplied appliance, doesn’t have the same level of software or service integration, but it’s enough.

[If you want to learn more, Howard’s is doing a series of deep dive webinars/classes on HCI as part of his friend’s Ivan’s ipSpace.net. The 1st 2hr session was recorded 11 December, part 2 goes live 22 January, and the final installment on 5 February. The 1st session is available on demand to subscribers. Sign up here]

Computional storage finally makes sense

Howard and I 1st saw computational storage at FMS18 and we did a podcast with Scott Shadley of NGD systems. Computational storage is an SSD with spare ARM cores and DRAM that can be used to run any storage intensive, Linux application or Docker container.

Because it’s running in the SSD, it has (even faster than NVMe) lightening fast access to all the data on the SSD. Indeed, And the with 10s to 1000s of computational storage SSDs in a rack, each with multiple ARM cores, means you can have many 1000s of cores available to perform your data intensive processing. Almost like GPUs only for IO access to storage (SPUs?).

We tried this at one vendor in the 90s, executing some database and backup services outboard but it never took off. Then in the last couple of years (Dell) EMC had some VM services that you could run on their midrange systems. But that didn’t seem to take off either.

The computational storage we’ve seen all run Linux. And with todays data intensive applications coming from everywhere these days, and all the spare processing power in SSDs, it might finally make sense.


Finally, we turned to what we see coming in 2019. Howard was at an Intel Analyst event where they discussed Optane DIMMs. Our last podcast of 2018 was with Brian Bulkowski of Aerospike who discussed what Optane DIMMs will mean for high performance database systems and just about any memory intensive server application. For example, affordable, 6TB memory servers will be coming out shortly. What you can do with 6TB of memory is another question….

Howard Marks, Founder and Chief Scientist, DeepStorage

Howard Marks is the Founder and Chief Scientist of DeepStorage, a prominent blogger at Deep Storage Blog and can be found on twitter @DeepStorageNet.

Raymond Lucchesi, Founder and President, Silverton Consulting

Ray Lucchesi is the President and Founder of Silverton Consulting, a prominent blogger at RayOnStorage.com, and can be found on twitter @RayLucchesi. Signup for SCI’s free, monthly e-newsletter here.

72: GreyBeards talk Computational Storage with Scott Shadley, VP Marketing NGD Systems

For this episode the GreyBeards talked with another old friend, Scott Shadley, VP Marketing, NGD Systems. As we discussed on our FMS18 wrap up show with Jim Handy, computational storage had sort of a coming out party at the show.

NGD systems started in 2013 and have  been working towards a solution that goes general availability at the end of this year. Their computational storage SSD supplies general purpose processing power sitting inside an SSD. NGD shipped their first prototypes in 2016, shipped FPGA version of their smart SSD in 2017 and already have their field upgradable, ASIC prototypes in customer hands.

NGD’s smart SSDs have a 4-core ARM processor and  run an Ubuntu Distro on 3 of them.  Essentially, anything that could be run on Ubuntu Linux, including Docker containers and Kubernetes could be run on their smart SSDs.

NGD sells standard (storage only) SSDs as well as their smart SSDs. The smart hardware is shipped with all of their SSDs, but is only enabled after customer’s purchase a software license key. They currently offer their smart SSD solutions in  America and Europe, with APAC coming later.

They offer smart SSDs in both a 2.5” and M.2 form factor. NGD Systemss are following the flash technology road map and currently offer a 16TB SSD in 2.5” FF.

How applications work on smart SSDs

They offer an open-source, SDK which creates a TCP/IP tunnel across the  NVMe bus that attaches their smart SSD. This allows the host and the SSD server to communicate and send (RPC) work back and forth between them.

A normal smart SSD work flow could be

  1. Host server writes data onto the smart SSD;
  2. Host signals the smart SSD to perform work on the data on the smartSSD;
  3. Smart SSD processes the data that has been sent to the SSD; and
  4. When smart SSD work is done, it sends a response back to the host.

I assume somewhere before #2 above, you load application software onto the device.

All the work to be done on smart SSDs could be the same for the attached SSD and the work could easily be distributed across all attached smart SSDs attached and the host processor. For example, for image processing, a host processor would write images to be processed across all the SSDs and have each perform image recognition and append tags (or other results info) metadata onto the image and then respond back to the host. Or for media transcoding, video streams could be written to a smart SSD and have it perform transcoding completely outboard.

The smart SSD processors access the data just like the host processor or could use services available in their SDK which would access the data much faster. Just about any data processing you could do on the host processor could be done outboard, on smart SSD processor elements. Scott mentioned that memory intensive applications are probably not a good fit for computational storage.

He also said that their processing (ARM) elements were specifically designed for low power operations. So although AI training and inference processing might be much faster on GPUs, their power consumption was much higher. As a result, AI training and inference processing power-performance would be better on smart SSDs.

Markets for smart SSDs?

One target market for NGD’s computational storage SSDs is hyper scalars. At FMS18, Microsoft Research published a report on running FAISS software on NGD Smart SSDs that led to a significant speedup. Scott also brought up one company they’re working with that was testing  to find out just how many 4K video  streams can be processed on a gaggle of smart SSDs. There was also talk of three letter (gov’t) organizations interested in smart SSDs to encrypt data and perform other outboard processing of (intelligence) data.

Highly distributed applications and data reminds me of a lot of HPC customers I  know. But bandwidth is also a major concern for HPC.  NVMe is fast, but there’s a limit to how many SSDs can be attached to a server.

However, with NVMeoF, NGD Systems could support a lot more “attached”  smart SSDs. Imagine a scoop of smart SSDs, all attached to a slurp of servers,  performing data intensive applications on their processing elements in a widely distributed fashion. Sounds like HPC to me.

The podcast runs ~39 minutes. Scott’s great to talk with and is very knowledgeable about the Flash/SSD industry and NGD Systems. His talk on their computational storage was mind expanding. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Scott Shadley, VP Marketing, NGD Systems

Scott Shadley, Storage Technologist and VP of Marketing at NGD Systems, has more than 20 years of experience with Storage and Semiconductor technology. Working at STEC he was part of the team that enabled and created the world’s first Enterprise SSDs.

He spent 17 years at Micron, most recently leading the SATA SSD product line with record-breaking revenue and growth for the company. He is active on social media, a lover of all things High Tech, enjoys educating and sharing and a self-proclaimed geek around mobile technologies.