IBM Storage: Making Simple Easy

By Charles King, Pund-IT®  February 12, 2020

“Easy” or “simple” products have been mainstays in the tech industry since the launch of commercial personal computers (PCs) in the 1980s. However, while they share similarities, the two concepts are substantially different. The former emphasizes reducing customers’ anxieties and concerns about unfamiliar products, usually by masking technological complexity with user-friendly software and tools. The graphical user interface (GUI) that Apple introduced with its Macintosh PCs in 1984 is a prime example of this approach.

In contrast, the latter term suggests that a conscious effort has been made to improve the performance and quality of complex products, often by reducing or entirely removing redundant steps with innovative technologies, software and tools. As a result, customers (often businesses) enjoy better productivity and returns on their IT investments.

I’m raising these points to explore the new solutions that IBM introduced this week in its “radically simplified” FlashSystem storage solutions. Let’s take a look at what the company is delivering and what enterprise customers stand to gain.

Origins of storage complexity

Why do data storage solutions tend to be complex? Three issues come to mind; 1) storage evolution, 2) customers’ needs and habits, and 3) vendor strategies.

Concerning the first point, it’s hard to think of a technology that evolves as quickly or fundamentally as data storage. On the hardware side, storage media has rapidly shifted as various mechanical tape, floppy disks, hard disks, optical disks and, most recently, SSD/flash came to the fore and then, in many cases, faded away. Storage software followed a similar path, enabling customers to support sophisticated tasks and processes. They also enjoyed steady, massive improvements in storage capacity and performance that dwarfed what semiconductor and microprocessor vendors were achieving.

But that constant evolution sometimes leaves customers holding the bag, watching the value of their investments wither or blow away due to the flagging performance, redundancy, decline and failure of aging products. Those companies didn’t help themselves by attempting to lower their risk by mistaking cost for value, buying whatever products were cheapest from whichever vendors were offering the best deals that week. As a result, many if not most business data centers support multiple vendors’ storage solutions.

Finally, vendors themselves deserve a mention. Since customers’ storage needs vary widely, vendors have typically responded with unique solutions designed to support particular requirements, including pricing, performance data services and scalability, as well as specific applications and use cases. But uniqueness tends to increase complexity due to different management and troubleshooting platforms, APIs, automation tools and methodologies for hybrid cloud migration and support. Add that to the hodgepodge of systems businesses own and the headaches of storage staff and management take a quantum leap.

IBM’s new FlashSystem family members

It is likely that organizations would welcome better, simpler ways of addressing their data storage requirements. Is any vendor delivering the goods they need? IBM’s new family of FlashSystem solutions incorporates features and functionalities designed to address and remedy longstanding storage complexities. Let’s consider these in turn.

On the hardware side, IBM introduced a trio of new solutions:

  1. The FlashSystem 7200 is designed for mid-range enterprises and can be used in both scale-up and scale-out deployments. The end-to-end NVMe, 7200 supports 43% higher performance (9.2M IOPs max) and 55% better throughput (128GB/s) than IBM’s Storwize V7000 Gen. The cost is also lower than previous generation Storwize 7000 systems.
  2. The FlashSystem 9200 is designed for the most demanding enterprise applications and use cases. An end-to-end NVMe solution, the 9200 delivers comprehensive storage functionality with 20% better performance (18M IOPs and 180GB/s per 4-way cluster) at a lower price than the prior generation FlashSystem 9100.
  3. The FlashSystem 9200R offers the 9200’s same features and benefits to customers that require systems which are built, tested, delivered assembled, installed and configured by IBM. The 9200R includes 2-4 9200 control enclosures, Brocade or Cisco clustering interconnects and optional enclosures for expanded capacity.

The larger FlashSystem family also includes the entry level FlashSystem 5010, 5030 and 5100. Excepting the 9200 and 9200R, IBM FlashSystem solutions are available in all-flash and hybrid flash configurations.

Along with the new systems, IBM introduced a new FlashCore Module with 38.4TB of usable capacity so customers can deploy a remarkable 4PB of data in just two rack units (2U) of space with data reduction. As was the case with prior generation solutions, the new FlashCore Modules support both data compression and FIPS 140-2 data-at-rest encryption with no impact on performance. The new modules are also available as upgrades for IBM’s FlashSystem 9100 and Storwize V5100 and V7000 Gen3 solutions.

Along with the new FlashSystem solutions, IBM is introducing storage class memory (SCM) drives from Intel and Samsung to support ultra-low latency for performance-sensitive but less cache-friendly workloads, like operational applications and databases, virtualization and hybrid cloud implementations. The new SCM modules are also available as upgrades for IBM’s FlashSystem 9100 and Storwize V5100 and V7000 Gen3 solutions.

The software path to radical simplification

Substantially improved performance at lower cost than prior gen solutions is a great selling point, but where’s the “radical simplification” IBM is promising to deliver? Much of that value can be found in the applications and tools supporting the FlashSystem family.

Leading off that group is IBM Spectrum Virtualize, the company’s award-winning data services platform. Along with supporting both on-premises and hybrid cloud storage deployments, Spectrum Virtualize plays a central role in all IBM FlashSystem products. Just as important is the work that IBM has put into making the platform compatible with storage systems and arrays from other vendors.

At this point, Spectrum Virtualize can be used to integrate storage from over 500 IBM and non-IBM storage systems, a critical point for customers that hope to simplify and unify storage and data management. In addition, the company’s Spectrum Virtualize for Public Cloud can be used in hybrid cloud environments, enabling customers to leverage a common interface for both on- and off-premises data and systems.

Complementing Spectrum Virtualize are other company-developed tools and applications. For example, IBM Easy Tier is an AI-enabled solution that transparently moves data to the storage tier that best suits performance and budget requirements. IBM Storage Insights can be used to support common storage processes in IBM Cloud, like monitoring, reporting and AI-based alerts. Another version, Storage Insights Pro provides a single management pane for heterogeneous storage supported by Spectrum Virtualize for Public Cloud, including EMC Unity and Unity XT, NetApp FAS and AFF, and Hitachi VSP G-series.

Finally, IBM has developed consistent APIs to support automation in both on- and off-prem storage for all deployment approaches, including bare metal, virtualized, containerized and hybrid multi-cloud.

What is the bottom line here? By incorporating new technologies including its own next gen FlashCore Modules and SCM modules from Intel and Samsung, IBM has substantially rounded out the top end of its FlashSystem portfolio with solutions that combine exceptional performance and capacity. Added to the other members of the FlashSystem family, IBM enterprise customers now have access to a full range of all- and hybrid flash storage solutions capable of optimally supporting virtually any application, workload or business process.

Additionally, the company’s investments in storage software and management tools, such as Spectrum Virtualize, Storage Insights and Easy Tier make IBM worthy of investigation by organizations considering how best to consolidate and simplify the management of complex heterogeneous storage resources and tasks, whether they are located on premises or in public clouds.

Final analysis

Some years ago, IBM decided to press forward with a strategic vision and development efforts that served as the foundation of its FlashSystem family, Spectrum Virtualize, Storage Insights and other solutions. As a result, its customers enjoy the substantial benefits of IBM’s leading-edge enterprise-class flash offerings, as well as tools and methodologies for seamlessly managing data residing on other vendors’ storage systems.

In other words, just as it does in real life, successful simplification requires substantial work. IBM has put in the time, money and effort required to make enterprise storage simple. By doing so, the company has made life easier for its customers and their data center managers and staff. Simple and easy may be substantially different concepts, but in the hands of a forward-thinking vendor like IBM, one can lead to the other.

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