Flash Debrief: The End (part 1)

Seven years ago this month, I created a blog and online presence called flashdba to mark the start of my journey away from Oracle databases (and DBAing) into the newly-born All-Flash Storage industry. Six years ago this month, I posted the first in what transpired to be a very long blog series attempting to explain the concepts of All Flash to those few who were interested. At least, I always assumed it would be a few, but now here we are in 2019 and the flashdba.com blog has been read over a million times, referenced in all sorts of surprising places and alluded to by Chris Mellor at The Register. One of my articles even (allegedly) got a mention by Mark Hurd during an Oracle forecast call!

But now, for various reasons that I will explain later, it’s time to draw it to a conclusion.

Review

Wow! What a ride it’s been, huh? Seven years ago, I joined a company called Violin Memory who were at the forefront of the infant (or should that be infantile?) flash industry. At one point, Violin had a global partnership with HP to make an “Exadata-killer” machine and had a valuation estimated to be around $2bn. EMC even wrote a secret briefing document in which they said, “Violin … is XtremIO’s #1 competitor in the all-flash storage market”. Meanwhile, numerous other small flash companies were being acquired for ridiculous, crazy and obscene money despite often being “pre-product” or pre-GA.So it took a particularly special effort for Violin Memory to take that head start and end up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2016. (The company is reborn as Violin Systems now, of course – and I still have friends there, so out of respect for them I have to keep my Violin stories under wraps. Which is a shame, because boy do I have some great stories…)divorce

Meanwhile, back in 2015, I’d decided to leave Violin Memory and join another All Flash pioneer, Kaminario – where I remain today. It’s fair to say that Violin Memory didn’t appreciate that decision, with the result that I had to spend a lot of time dealing with their lawyers. You feel very small when you are a sole person engaged in a legal dispute with a corporation who can afford an expensive legal team – you become enormously aware of the difference in spending power (although, in hindsight, perhaps Violin could have used those legal fees elsewhere to better effect). So, when the CEO of Kaminario interrupted his family holiday to call me and assure me that they would stand by me throughout the dispute, it left me with a real glimpse into the different in culture between my former employer and my current one. Also, Kaminario’s lawyers were a lot better!

The Flash Storage Wars (available now as a boxset)

The road from 2012 to 2019 is littered with the bloody carcasses of failed flash companies. From the disasters (Violin Memory, Skyera, FusionIO, Tintri, Whiptail, DSSD) to the acquisitions (Texas Memory Systems, XtremIO, Virident, SolidFire, Nimble) – not all of which could be considered successful – to the home-grown products which never really delivered (I’m looking at you, Oracle FS1). One company, Pure Storage, managed to beat the odds, ride out some stormy times and go from startup to fully-established player, although following their IPO the stock market has never really given them a lot of love. Meanwhile, EMC – the ultimate big dog of storage – was acquired by Dell, while HP split into two companies and NetApp continued to be linked with an acquisition by Lenovo or Cisco. Someday, somebody is going to turn the whole story into a boxset and sell it to Netflix for millions. Game of Thrones eat your heart out.

Yet there can be no doubt that All Flash itself has succeeded in its penetration of the previously disk-dominated enterprise storage market, with IDC regularly reporting huge year-on-year growth figures (e.g. 39.3% between Q3-2017 and Q4-2018). I vividly remember, back in 2012, having to explain to every prospective customer what flash was and why it was important. Today, every prospect has already decided they want All Flash. In fact, AFAs have become so mainstream now that, starting this year, Gartner will be merging its Solid State Array Magic Quadrant with the more traditional MQ for General-Purpose Disk Arrays. It just doesn’t make sense to have two separate models now.

So Who Won?

Good question. Was it DellEMC, the biggest company in storage and the current #1 in market share? Was it Pure Storage, who led Gartner’s most recent Solid State Array Magic Quadrant (but have it all to lose when the SSA MQ merges with the general-purpose MQ)? Or was it any number of investors and venture capitalists who managed to make money on the back of such market disruption? It’s a subjective question so you can choose your own answer. But for me, it’s very clear that there was only one winner… and back in 2012 we had no idea (although my old boss called it over a decade ago… I should have paid more attention). The ultimate winner of this war – and many other wars besides – is the cloud.

In part two – the final ever blog in this series (and possibly at all – spoiler alert), I’ll explain why I think the cloud is the ultimate winner… and why I’m calling time on flashdba after all these years. Wipe away those tears, my friends – not long now.

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Postcards from Storageland: Pure Storage Cancels Christmas

christmas-angel

Ho ho ho folks. It’s nearly Christmas Day, 2016 and it most definitely is the season to be jolly. It’s also an exciting time in the All Flash Array industry with NetApp announcing its intended acquisition of Solidfire for a reported $870 million. Merry Christmas to everyone at Solidfire!

Unfortunately those sentiments weren’t shared by Pure Storage’s VP of Product, Matt Kixmoeller, who published a blog on the subject of the acquisition which seemed a little on the bitter side. A number of commentators on Twitter agreed:

pure-twitter-comments

This was an unusual slip of the mask for Pure Storage, who normally set the bar very high when it comes to marketing and PR. I don’t know for sure but I imagine that at some point after publication red lights and klaxons started flashing and blaring in the marketing division of Pure’s Mountain View head office. Within a short amount of time the blog post had been rewritten and republished with a suitably humbling note from Mr Kixmoeller:

pure-kixmoeller-response

I have to admit I struggle with the use of the word “feedback” here when “criticism” would clearly be more accurate… but I don’t want to turn this post into my own vendor-bashing exercise. I do however think it’s a very interesting opportunity to examine the workings of a marketing department. So here – purely for your edification – are the two versions of the article published so far (courtesy of the Internet Wayback Machine):

NetApp Acquires SolidFire – Flash Strategy Take 5 [initial version published 21 Dec 2015]

NetApp Acquires SolidFire – Flash Strategy Take 5 [revised version published 22 Dec 2015]

 

And here, to make it easy to consume, is a marked up version of the original document with changes in red. There are quite a lot of them! (Click on the image to see a larger version)

Merry Christmas everybody!

pure-article-on-netapp-and-solidfire

[Thanks to the Copyscape Compare tool for making this exercise easier…]

Was I Mentioned During Oracle’s Q4 2015 Results Call?

hurd

In a proud moment for me, it appears that Mark Hurd, CEO of Oracle, has mentioned my flashdba blog during the Oracle Q4 2015 results call. At least, that’s what I’m reading into this section from the transcript published by Seeking Alpha:

We grew in storage in the quarter and this is — really we are going through a shift in storage now. We released our SAN product FS1 in the quarter which saw some bookings. This is really the first quarter we got any bookings out of FS1 or GFS product, somebody’s renamed that but I haven’t recently – BS1. I wish they wouldn’t do that to me but so they renamed BS1 – so I missed the – but anyway so we had good growth in PaaS – as well.

I’m pretty sure that my blog post entitled Postcard from Oracle OpenWorld 2014: The Oracle FS1 Flash Array was the first place in which Oracle’s newly-announced FS1 Flash Storage System was ironically described as the “BS1 Flash Storage Array” due to some of the baffling marketing claims made at its announcement during Oracle OpenWorld 2014. Claims like, “The Oracle FS1 is the first mainstream, general purpose flash array”.

I haven’t heard the recording of the call, just read the transcript, but it appears to me that Mr Hurd uses the BS1 phrase to get some laughs from the analysts on the call.

So hey, thanks Mark! It’s exciting to know that finally, even in a small way, I’ve been able to make a contribution at the highest levels within Oracle. I am open to discussions about filling a new role as Oracle’s SVP of Investor Comedy Moments. And with those results, it could be an increasingly essential role…!

Postcards from Storageland: Three Years At Violin

calendar

A few weeks ago, in what seems to be a truly modern phenomenon, I became aware that it was my third anniversary of joining Violin after I noticed a number of people congratulating me on LinkedIn. In many ways it feels like I’ve already been here for a lifetime, but it was only twelve months ago I was trying to think of a suitable flash-based pun for the title of an article just like this one. This year I opted out of the “Three years in a flash” headline, it seemed a bit too lame. Those NAND-based puns were only ever a flash in the pan.*

So what’s happened in the three years since I joined Violin? Well, quite a lot. When I signed up in early 2012 Violin was pioneering the flash array industry – and when I say pioneering I mean that, unlike in today’s crowded AFA market, it was a pretty lonely place. The only other all-flash array vendor with a presence was Texas Memory Systems (TMS), but they had seemingly gone into hibernation in the markets I had exposure to (as it turned out they were looking for a buyer, which they found in the form of IBM).

I was one of the first employees in EMEA, part of a business which was rapidly expanding due to a global reseller agreement with HP for our 3000 series array. The main enemy was the status quo – monolithic disk arrays from EMC, IBM, HP, HDS etc, perhaps with a smattering of SSDs to try and alleviate the terrible performance of random I/O. With the 3000 on HP’s price list and no real competition to worry about it seemed like the world was there for the taking. Time to pay of the mortgage.

Were we overconfident? Guilty of hubris, perhaps? We must have alienated a few people in the industry because I know not everyone felt sympathy for what happened next.

Pride Cometh Before A Fall

With hindsight, the $2.35 billion that HP paid for 3PAR meant it was unlikely to continue using Violin as a strategic product. HP may have a history of write downs, but it simply couldn’t justify OEMing the new 6000 series array with 3PAR still on the books so… it didn’t.

Meanwhile, EMC purchased a company that hadn’t yet shipped a product, IBM did its deal with TMS, Cisco bizarrely purchased Whiptail (which now appears to be suspended as a product) and a number of SSD-based flash array startups (e.g. Pure Storage) appeared on the market.

crash-chartAll of which meant that, when Violin went to IPO, things didn’t exactly go to plan. In fact, it eventually resulted in a change of management and the introduction of a new CEO and management team who have systematically transformed the company over the last year. But at the time, it felt like a roller coaster.

So why am I reminiscing about the bad times? Partly because I don’t want to gloss over the past, but also because I genuinely think that Violin has had to do a lot of growing up in the last year or so – and that’s a good thing. When I look at other flash vendors throwing FUD at each other, getting into legal disputes over employees or burning bridges with their channel partners to try and get their pre-IPO books look more attractive… I can’t help a wry smile. Youth, eh? Some people still have harsh lessons to learn.

From Niche to Platform

This year, on the third anniversary of my joining Violin, we announced an important new product – the 7000 series Flash Storage Platform. Until the FSP, Violin had generally competed in the niche performance-optimized market – what some people call Tier 0 – where the single most important attribute is… well, performance (think database workloads). We’ve been pretty successful there, mainly because the 6000 series was (and still is) unbelievably fast, but also partly because much of the competition competes lower down in the capacity-optimized market (where price per GB is key – think VDI workloads). But we also attracted a surprising amount of criticism for the lack of certain Data Services features, such as deduplication (a feature that I’ve never coveted for database workloads).

But with the Flash Storage Platform, Violin – and flash in general – is moving into a new, larger and much more demanding market: Tier 1 primary storage. This is the big playground where all the major disk array vendors are desperately trying to stem the losses from their legacy SAN products. flash-market-venn-diagramIt’s also a market which is nearly 15 times larger than the one we used to operate in. And most importantly, it’s the one where you need to be able to deliver on all three requirements of the Primary Storage Trinity:

  • Performance (high IOPS and low latency)
  • Data Services (lots of features, fully integrated)
  • Capacity Optimization (low $/GB price)

By complete coincidence, this product launch also coincides with the end of the Understanding Flash section of my blog series on Storage for DBAs (when I started the flashdba blog it was aimed at database administrators, but over time the intended audience has expanded to anyone with an interest in flash storage).

With that in mind, in the next set of posts I’ll be turning my attention to the concepts and architecture of All Flash Arrays. What defines an AFA? What needs to be considered when designing one? And why doesn’t it make sense to stuff a load of SSDs into an existing disk array in the hope that it will deliver the performance of All Flash?

This is a really exciting time to be working in the storage industry – there’s lots to do and a massive opportunity to embrace. Because of this, the blog posts haven’t been coming as quickly as I’d hoped. But I still have much I want to talk about… so don’t worry, the next one will be back in a flash.**

* I really will stop making flash-based puns now

** Apart from this one

Postcards from Storageland: Two Years Flash By

calendar

The start of March means I have been working at Violin Memory for exactly two years. This also corresponds to exactly two years of the flashdba blog, so I thought I’d take stock and look at what’s happened since I embarked on my journey into the world of storage. Quite a lot, as it happens…

Flash Is No Longer The Future

The single biggest difference between now and the world of storage I entered two years ago is that flash memory is no longer an unknown. In early 2012 I used to visit customers and talk about one thing: disk. I would tell them about the mechanical limitations of disk, about random versus sequential I/O, about how disk was holding them back. Sure I would discuss flash too – I’d attempt to illustrate the enormous benefits it brings in terms of performance, cost and environmental benefits (power, cooling, real estate etc)… but it was all described in relation to disk. Flash was a future technology and I was attempting to bring it into the present.

Today, we hardly ever talk disk. Everyone knows the limitations of mechanical storage and very few customers ever compare us against disk-based solutions. These days customers are buying flash systems and the only choice they want to make is over which vendor to use.

Violin Memory 2.0

The storage industry is awash with people who use “personal” blogs as a corporate marketing mouthpiece to trumpet their products and trash the competition. I always avoid that, because I think it’s insulting to the reader’s intelligence; the point of blogging is to share knowledge and personal opinion. I also try to avoid talking about corporate topics such as roadmap, financial performance, management changes etc. But if I wrote an article looking back at two years of Violin Memory and didn’t even mention the IPO, all credibility would be gone.

So let me be honest [please note the disclaimer, these are my personal opinions], the Violin Memory journey over the last couple of years has been pretty crazy. We have such a great product – and the flash market is such a great opportunity – that the wave of negative press last year came as a surprise to me. I guess that shows some naivety on my part for forgetting that product and opportunity are only two pieces of the puzzle, but all the same what I read in the news didn’t seem to correspond to what I saw in my day job as we successfully competed for business around Europe. I had customers who had not just improved but transformed their businesses by using Violin. That had to be a good sign, right?

Now here we are in 2014 and, despite some changes, Violin continues to develop as a company under the guidance of an experienced new CEO. I’m still doing what I love, which is travelling around Europe (in the last month alone I’ve been in the UK, France, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany) meeting exciting new customers and competing against the biggest names in storage (see below). In a world where things change all the time, I’m happy to say this is one thing that remains constant.

The Competition

Now for the juicy bit. Part of the reason I was invited to join Violin was to compete against my former employer’s Exadata product – something I have been doing ever since. However, in those heady days of 2011 it also appeared that Fusion IO would be the big competitor in the flash space. Meanwhile, at that time, none of the big boys had flash array products of note. EMC, IBM, NetApp, Cisco, Dell… nothing. The only one who did was HP, who were busy reselling a product called VMA – yes that’s right, the Violin Memory Array – despite having recently paid $2.4b for 3PAR.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. EMC paid an astonishing amount of money for the “pre-product” XtremIO, which took 18 months to achieve general availability. IBM bought the struggling Texas Memory Systems. HP decided to focus on 3PAR over Violin. Cisco surprised everyone by buying Whiptail (including themselves, apparently). And NetApp finally admitted that their strategy of ignoring flash arrays may not have been such a good idea.

That’s the market, but what have I seen? I regularly compete against other flash vendors in the EMEA region – and don’t forget, I only get involved if it’s an Oracle database solution under consideration. The Oracle deals tend to be the largest by size and occupy a space which you could clearly describe as “enterprise class” – I rarely get involved in midrange or small business-sized deals.

The truth is I see the same thing pretty much every time: I compete against EMC and IBM, or I compete against Oracle Exadata. I’ve never seen Fusion IO in a deal – which is not surprising because their cards and our arrays tend to be solutions for different problems. However, I’ve also never – ever – seen Pure Storage in a competitive situation on one of my accounts, nor Nimbus, Nimble, SolidFire, Kaminario or Skyera. I’ve seen Whiptail, HDS and Huawei maybe once each; HP probably a few more times. But when it comes down to the final bake off, it’s EMC, IBM or Exadata. I claim that my experience is representative of the market, but it is real.

Who is the biggest threat? That’s an easy one to answer: it’s always the incumbent storage supplier. No matter how great a solution you have, or how low a price, it’s always easier for a customer to do nothing than to make a change. Inertia is our biggest competitor. Yet at the same time the incumbent has the biggest problem: so much to lose.

And how am I doing in these competitions? Well, that would be telling. But look at it this way – two years on and I’m still trusted to do this.

I wonder what the next two years will bring?

Update (Spring 2014): I’ve finally had my first ever competitive POC against Pure Storage at a customer in Germany. It would be inappropriate for me to say who won. 🙂

Postcards from Storageland: Competitive Blogging

lock-horns

A couple of years ago I left the warmth and comfort of the database world and joined the storage industry – a harsh unrelenting world full of cut-throat competition and vendor rivalries, where marketing is treated less as a way of communicating with customers and more as a form of mortal combat. Ok so I’m massively exaggerating (I used to work for Oracle after all) but it does surprise me just how much FUD is thrown in storageland.

I guess it should come as no surprise. For decades, storage has been about little more than disks and tapes, yet now we find ourselves in the brave new world of non-volatile memory, where silicon-based technologies such as NAND flash are changing not just the way we store data but the way we do business. Whereas previously the world of storage had been dominated by a few big players, the arrival of flash saw a host of smaller and more agile contenders enter the market until it was saturated with more products than could possibly survive. The result? A bloodbath, with companies being acquired, frantically playing catchup, floating, going out of business, suing each other, or sometimes just putting their heads in the sand. With so much at stake – not just money but reputations and egos – it was only ever going to descend into an all out war.

Top Trumps with Data Sheets

One thing that remains consistent across multiple industries is the old-school tactic of comparing yourself favourably to your competition. This is essentially a massive game of Top Trumps played with data sheets, whereby you pick some numbers that are better for your product than your competitor’s and then ignore the others, thus showing that your product is unquestionably superior. Of course, “facts” are famously tricky things in that they are based on truth and reality. But not to worry, there are workarounds you can use when your facts aren’t giving you the answer you want:

  • Selectively pick the facts that suit you, ignoring those that work against your argument (example)
  • Use old data from older products if it makes a better case, ensuring that you never update your comparisons unless they suit you (example – look for the “as of May 2013” smallprint)
  • If all else fails, interpret the “facts” as you see fit and then make some claims in the small print about how you had to make some assumptions based on a lack of data (example – look at the persistent misuse of the term “minimum latency”)

The latter option is particularly interesting, so let’s consider that further.

Blogging: The New Front Line

I’ve recently become aware of a new type of blog: the competitive blog. Who knows, maybe it was always like this but I’ve only noticed since I joined the industry and have been forced to look. We’ve always had personal blogs, written by company employees on their own time sharing their knowledge and experiences, with disclaimers that the opinions do not represent those of the employer. It’s also fairly commonplace to see corporate blogs, hosted on the company website, giving you more of a feel for the company’s views; after all, everyone expects the guy from Nimbus to write long articles attacking the opposition – it’s his company and nobody can stop him. But what about if you are using your “personal” blog to bash the opposition? I don’t mean criticise their behaviour, as I am doing now, I mean telling your readers that your product is better than “Brand Y” and backing it up with minimal facts and half-truths. As long as I put a disclaimer advising everyone that I’m not an expert on competitive products and I’m happy to update any information which is incorrect, is it acceptable to then make stuff up based on what I do not know but have merely guessed? Or what I want to believe because it suits my requirements? Can I do this, for example:

Disclaimer: I do not have any information on the available flavours, fragrances or textures of products from 1BM, ENC or Pure Floorage. Violin Memory products are not available with any of these options, although I've always found the 6264 to feel particularly smooth and creamy out of the box. All information presented here is factually incorrect and shown entirely for the purposes of satire. This article provides no warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. All persons or entities relying on the above information do so at their own risk, as it is quite obviously untrue.

Disclaimer: I do not have any information on the available flavours, fragrances or textures of products from 1BM, ENC or Pure Floorage. Violin Memory products are not available with any of these options, although I’ve always found the 6264 to feel particularly smooth and creamy out of the box. All information presented here is factually incorrect and shown entirely for the purposes of satire. This article provides no warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. All persons or entities relying on the above information do so at their own risk, as it is quite obviously untrue.

Ok so it’s tongue in cheek, but I can’t really see why that’s any different to this article. After all, I’m just trying to have a substantive conversation about the flavours, fragrances and textures of flash.

Stop It

stopThe way I see it, customers interested in competitive products are going to research their benefits and drawbacks – and that means talking to all vendors. It’s obvious that each vendor will talk up their product’s strengths. It’s also inevitable that each vendor will say something along the lines of, “Ask the other guy if his system’s performance degrades when its capacity fills up”, or “Find out what happens to the data if the UPS fails”. I’m realistic enough to know this will never change. I’m also relatively ambivalent towards the practice of competitive kill sheets or battle cards: you need your sales force to be educated on what your rivals can and cannot do (although it’s embarrassing when they get leaked to the public).

What I’m really tired of is product comparisons, many of which are factually inaccurate, wildly claiming that one vendor can do ALMOST EVERYTHING while every other vendor cannot. If this were really true, surely there would only be one product left standing by now? Let’s just give it up, nobody believes it anyway.

Addendum

Since writing this article my attention has been drawn to a new type of competitive blogging, as demonstrated by this article from an ex-colleague of mine. What I particularly admire about this example is that comments are not allowed on the post, so factual inaccuracies and poor research cannot be pointed out. Either the author is very (mistakenly) confident in his statements or he doesn’t want to hear and print the truth.