Intel’s Form Factor Is A Factor

Disclaimer: I recently attended Storage Field Day 17.  My flights, accommodation and other expenses were paid for by Tech Field Day. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event.  Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.

 

The Intel Optane team recently presented at Storage Field Day 17. You can see their videos from Storage Field Day 17 here, and download a PDF copy of my rough notes from here. I urge you to check out the videos, as there was a heck of a lot of stuff in there. But rather than talk about benchmarks and the SPDK, I’m going to focus on what’s happening with Intel’s approach to storage in terms of the form factor.

 

Of Form Factors And Other Matters Of Import

An Abbreviated History Of Drive Form Factors

Let’s start with little bit of history to get you going. IBM introduced the first hard drive – the IBM 350 disk storage unit – in 1956. Over time we’ve gone from a variety of big old drives to smaller form factors. I’m not old enough to reminisce about the Winchester drives, but I do remember the 5.25″ drives in the XT. Wikipedia provides a good a place to start as any if you’re interested in knowing more about hard drives. In any case, we now have the following prevailing form factors in use as hard drive storage:

  • 3.5″ drives – still reasonably common in desktop computers and “cheap and deep” storage systems;
  • 2.5″ drives (SFF) – popular in laptops and used as a “dense” form factor for a variety of server and storage solutions;
  • U.2 – mainstream PCIe SSD form factor that has the same dimensions as 2.5″ drives; and
  • M.2 – designed for laptops and tablets.

Challenges

There are a number of challenges associated with the current drive form factors. The most notable of these is the density issue. Drive (and storage) vendors have been struggling for years to try and cram more and more devices into smaller spaces whilst increasing device capacities as well. This has led to problems with cooling, power, and overall reliability. Basically, there’s only so much you can put in 1RU without the whole lot melting.

 

A Ruler? Wait, what?

Intel’s “Ruler” is a ruler-like, long (or short) drive based on the EDSFF (Enterprise and Datacenter Storage Form Factor) specification. There’s a tech brief you can view here. There are a few different versions (basically long and short), and it still leverages NVMe via PCIe.

[image courtesy of Intel]

It’s Denser

You can cram a lot of these things in a 1RU server, as Super Micro demonstrated a few months ago.

  • Up to 32 E1.L 9.5mm drives per 1RU
  • Up to 48 E1.S drives per 1RU

Which means you could be looking at around a petabyte of raw storage in 1RU (using 32TB E1.L drives). This number is only going to go up as capacities increase. Instead of half a rack of 4TB SSDs, you can do it all in 1RU.

It’s Cooler

Cooling has been a problem for storage systems for some time. A number of storage vendors have found out the hard way that jamming a bunch of drives in a small enclosure has a cost in terms of power and cooling. Intel tell us that they’ve had some (potentially) really good results with the E1.L and E1.S based on testing to date (in comparison to traditional SSDs). They talked about:

  • Up to 2x less airflow needed per E1.L 9.5mm SSD vs. U.2 15mm (based on Intel’s internal simulation results); and
  • Up to 3x less airflow needed per E1.S SSD vs. U.2 7mm.

Still Serviceable

You can also replace these things when they break. Intel say they’re:

  • Fully front serviceable with an integrated pull latch;
  • Support integrated, programmable LEDs; and
  • Support remote, drive specific power cycling.

 

Thoughts And Further Reading

SAN and NAS became popular in the data centre because you could jam a whole bunch of drives in a central location and you weren’t limited by what a single server could support. For some workloads though, having storage decoupled from the server can be problematic either in terms of latency, bandwidth, or both. Some workloads need their storage as close to the processor as possible. Technologies such as NVMe over Fabrics are addressing that issue to an extent, and other vendors are working to bring the compute closer to the storage. But some people just want to do what they do, and they need more and more storage to do it. I think the “ruler” form factor is an interesting approach to the issue traditionally associated with cramming a bunch of capacity in a small space. It’s probably going to be some time before you see this kind of thing in data centres as a matter of course, because it takes a long time to change the way that people design their servers to accommodate new standards. Remember how long it took for SFF drives to become as common in the DC as they are? No? Well it took a while. Server designs are sometimes developed years (or at least months) ahead of their release to the market. That said, I think Intel have come up with a really cool idea here, and if they can address the cooling and capacity issues as well as they say they can, this will likely take off. Of course, the idea of having 1PB of data sitting in 1RU should be at least a little scary in terms of failure domains, but I’m sure someone will work that out. It’s just physics after all, isn’t it?

There’s also an interesting article at The Register on the newer generation of drive form factors that’s worth checking out.

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