by Brian Beeler

EMC Project X Hands-On

At VMworld 2012 this week, StorageReview was part of a private briefing by EMC that showed off Project X and the updated v1.5 of VFCache. Project X is the code name for the first output of the XtremIO acquisition, which pairs two 1U Intel-based storage nodes with a 2U flash-storage enclosure. The 4U arrays are called X-Bricks and can be clustered together to deliver scale-out storage that automatically distributes the data evenly, increases performance linearly and maintains sub 1ms latency. Each X-Brick offers 4x 8Gbps Fibre Channel and 4x 10Gbps iSCSI along with 25 drive bays that support EMC's qualified SSDs offering up to 7TB of usable capacity per array via MLC NAND.

Scalable Performance
EMC is quick to point out that while one Project X X-Brick is good, more Bricks are better. With each X-Brick that gets added there are a few core benefits. First, data gets distributed over the X-Bricks for increased data reliability. Second, performance scales linearly with each new X-Brick. Because each unit brings with it two storage nodes for processing power, the arrays actually get faster rather than being bogged down. X-Bricks communicate with each other over InfiniBand, which means that even as more are added, the overall latency stays stable at sub 1ms. 

Designed for Flash
Like the updated VFCache, Project X is built for flash, meaning it's architecture is inherently designed to reduce writes, which is critical for ensuring the endurance of MLC NAND. The main way EMC accomplishes this is via their inline deduplication, which is global and always on. Aside from endurance gains, there are performance gains as well, as the dedupe frees up resources that would otherwise be required for writing data. Reducing writes is an obvious way to be flash-friendly but the Project X architecture includes many other more subtle features as well. Thin provisioning is done with 4KB allocation, meaning there's never any waste or fragmentation. There's also a very low overhead capacity hit of 8% (on top of the individual SSD overprovisioning) and a modified RAID structure is more data write efficient than RAID 5/6, while performing 1.6x quicker than RAID1.

Project X Performance
The performance demo included four X-Brick arrays churning away at tasks as varied as near-instant VDI deployments to 1,000,000 IOPS+ straightline random reads. The pure performance of the Project X arrays allows for activities that have previously either not been available, or have required a performance hit at the virtual desktop level. EMC showed virtual desktops with no compromises or feature crippling, in addition to the ability to put desktops to sleep during down time, freeing resources during that window while still being able to spin them back up in mere seconds. 

Formal demonstrations also included:

  • OLTP Database Demonstration (Execute aggressive OLTP workload, Maintain sub-millisecond response times, Excellent VDI experience at same time)
    • 400,000 sustain IOPS
    • End-to-end transactional latency of 500-600 microseconds
    • Workload executes from Virtual Machines
    • All array services are enabled and operational - Thin provisioned volumes, Real-time inline data reduction, Snapshots and volume clones
  • Large-Scale Virtualization Demonstration (Simulate large-scale cloud data center operations, On-demand vApp provisioning, Simultaneous massive application load)
    •  20GB/s vApp deployment bandwidth
    • Massive capacity consolidation
    • Hundreds of thousands of low latency application IOPS
  • VDI Demonstration (VDI user experience (during OLTP demo), Cost savings with mass suspend/resume, Agility of rapid desktop deployments)
    • Deploy new ready to use desktops in seconds
    • Minimal flash capacity for each new desktop
    • Mix Linked Clones and Full Clones with same user experience
    • Excellent desktop user experience
    • Leverage power of Project X for extremely attractive $/desktop

EMC Project X Highlights

  • Purpose built for flash
  • Commodity hardware
  • Scale-out design
  • Real-time inline deduplication
  • Full performance snapshots and clones
  • Thin provisioning
  • Full VAAI support
  • FC and iSCSI host ports
  • Flash-specific data protection
  • Simple provisioning
  • Stable performance under load
  • Ultra-high capacity utilization

What does this mean for the flash array competition?
In the storage business acquisitions are a way of life. To that end there are dozens of storage startups in the flash acceleration space that are venture funded explicitly for that reason...develop something cool, sell a few thousand, then exit. At least that's the plan. With EMC's XtremIO acquisition and the Project X output specifically, those invest and exit models are substantially at risk as Project X not only solves a variety of problems but it remains easy to use and stays "affordable" features that aren't necessarily common in enterprise storage gear. While EMC rigor is certainly in play with Project X, the XtremIO DNA is hard to ignore and easy to appreciate. Translation - startups in the flash array space should be nervous. Given the demos we saw and the obvious pedigree blended with usability and robust feature set, Project X stands to win over the hearts and minds of enterprise customers looking to solve throughput problems ranging from VDI to straight read performance to a mix of application needs in a single flash array.

Pricing and Availability
EMC Project X is expected to ship in the first half of 2013. Pricing per X-Brick will be announced more closely to launch.

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