This post is part of the blog series related to Storage Field Day 13 and the Pure Storage Accelerate conferences. Find out the entire SFD13 content, presentations, articles, presenting companies and delegates here.
X-IO is a company working in the storage field that I had never heard about until today. Let’s get started and figure out who X-IO are, what they do and what we are likely to hear about. X-IO are located in lovely Colorado Springs, a place where I’ve never been whose “Garden of the Gods” seems to be a masterpiece of nature’s work. Let’s get started!
X-IO started as the Seagate Advanced Storage Group in 2002. It’s an interesting story because I wouldn’t imagine that a large hard drive manufacturer (Seagate will also be at Storage Field Day 13 by the way) would launch a startup like X-IO, whose goal was to work on a “post-SAN architecture” that was to design, as per X-IO’s website, “the storage industry’s most intractable problem: the inability of SAN vendors to produce a scalable storage architecture that provided performance, capacity and reliability, with zero trade-offs”. Did it succeed? We’ll have a look later and of course during Storage Field Day 13.
But back to X-IO. The company is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the location where Seagate founded their Advanced Storage Architecture Group (ASAG) division. The relationship with Seagate (at least as a division) ended in 2007 as Seagate spun out their ASAG division which was purchased by Xiotech. I was not able to find conclusive evidence, but it appears that X-IO is privately owned and that investments in it amount to around 400 Million USD to date.
X-IO is a storage company that currently has three line of products: the Axellio series, the iglu series and the ISE series. The focus of this article and of the SFD13 presentation will be the Axellio Edge Computing platform.
Axellio – Architecture
Axellio is an edge computing platform, and to be honest, I had no clear idea what this meant about before writing this article. Obviously, something at the edge is at the periphery, and that’s a term that has been employed to define a variety of concepts such as hardware endpoints of any kind that are not located in a datacenter. In that context, edge computing would instill in our minds something more reminiscent of a ROBO (Remote Office/Branch Office) use case.
X-IO’s terminology of edge computing is quite different: they explain it as an emerging storage market where the three primary needs are high bandwidth, low latency and high density. Based on these three imperatives, the consumers for edge computing systems are highly-time sensitive environments/applications related to financial markets, cybersecurity and in essence any kind of application where latency needs to be the lowest while massive amounts of data must be ingested AND processed at high speeds. Interestingly, as most vendor see the advent of the cloud era as inevitable (we can say it is already here), they envision a cloud-centric model where most of the infrastructures are cloud-based and thus off-premises, while on-premises infrastructures (at the periphery or edge of the cloud) continue to exist to satisfy very specific mission-critical performance workloads that cloud providers cannot satisfy.
In this context, it’s understandable that data locality is essential as any unnecessary hops can increase the latency and adversely impact performance. Furthermore, at the current state of the technology, only NVMe SSDs offer the necessary performance to avoid congestion, filled-up queues, inconsistent write speeds and controller-induced bandwidth bottlenecks.
In terms of hardware, an Axellio appliance appears to be a 2U chassis with two server nodes, each node being packed with 2x Intel Xeon v4 CPUs and up to 2 TB RAM total (1 TB per node). Customers can choose between 4 CPU models, from the entry CPU model E5-2620 v4 (with a total of 32 cores/64 threads per appliance) to the high-end E5-2699 v4 (with a total of 88 cores/176 threads per appliance.
On the storage side, modules called “Flashpacs” are used. I don’t know exactly what is the shape and format of a Flashpac, but we learn that each 2U appliance can hold up to 6 Flashpacs, an each Flashpac sports up to 12 Dual Port NVMe 2.5″ SSD drives. This makes a total of 72 drives per 2U chassis. I’m interested in how this is achieved, and what OEM hardware platform is being used (or if they built their own).
Dual Port NVMe SSDs are interesting. They are essential for critical HA architectures as each SSD drive can be connected to two server hosts at the same time. This is interesting not only because of the HA architecture itself, but because the connectivity and the backplane need to be adjusted to support the fact that PCIe lanes are split between two hosts. One element that intrigues me is how these drives are connected. X-IO mentions they use an architecture called “FabricXpress”. Is it software? hardware? Is that a modified PCIe switch to connect the NVMe SSD drives (or Flashpacs)? That’s already a lot of questions. Looking around on the net seems to confirm that most if not all of the hardware architecture is custom built.
On the networking part, three options are proposed: 4x 10 GbE, 4x 40 GbE or 4x 100 GbE, which should fit most use cases: the networks of today (10 GbE), the networks of Ciscoland (40 GbE) and the networks of tomorrow (100 GbE) – replace with “networks of today” if you work in a cool place. And finally I also read somewhere in the press that some optional modules also exist for offloading such as Xeon Phi massive parallel co-processor modules, NVidia GPU modules for video processing & VDI use cases, NVidia Tesla K80 modules for scientific computation and finally also a special module for network traffic capture.
While we have covered the hardware specs, I was not able to find a better explanation about how each components interact with the other, whether there is any kind of caching, etc. Hopefully we will find out more in Colorado Springs.
At the risk of disappointing you, this remains the mystery part. I was not able to find anything on this front. Stay tuned into SFD13 Live Stream!
Gartner placed X-IO in their Solid State Arrays Magic Quadrant in 2016, which is quite logical considering that Axellio leverages Dual Port NVMe SSD modules, however I was not able to find which of the X-IO products were placed there.
Considering the high performance capabilities and the target market I would initially tend to place Axellio in the same basket as mission critical all flash architectures such as E8, Exelero and the now defunct DSSD project.
While taking my shower I was pondering that point and thought that while E8 and Excelero are Tier 0 (mission critical performance) software-defined storage architectures, Axellio seems to be the only one who does incorporate storage AND compute. Moving a step farther, it would almost look like Axellio is a Tier 0 hyper-converged architecture. Is it? Is it not?
The question, beyond whether this is true or not, is whether this terminology would be beneficial to Axellio. I dare to say no for three reasons, in no particular order:
- Hyper-converged is a saturated market with a couple leaders and more companies playing in that space, so there is really no advantage for X-IO to show up and scream “hey, we’re here too!” in a space where vendors tend more than everywhere else to be acrimonious and fiercely wage word/marketing wars through proxies at every single piece of news
- Axellio is a Tier 0 converged solution built for extreme performance with a potentially large amount of NVMe SSD drives (if you fully populate the appliance). Flash is expensive, NVMe flash even more. This is not the same market as Tier1 workloads where SAS/SATA SSDs are used and sometimes even coexist with spinning drives in hybrid arrays.
- Axellio is targeting a niche market, but one that is potentially very lucrative. Real-time financial/market systems & real-time analytics, defense applications, intelligence and cyber-warfare systems. Hello to our fine friends at the NSA, by the way: they might be a perfect candidate for ingesting terabytes of data and network traffic in real time – and run real-time analytics on top of that for example. All of these are perfect candidates for the Axellio architecture: in essence, what was said above (high bandwidth, low latency and high density of data) are the three drivers to consider Axellio. Would your Oracle database benefit from it? Probably! Is it worth the money? Depends how critical your DB is. I’m not an expert in Axellio and I’m speculating on what I’ve read. If the occasion arises I’ll ask about that.
For these reasons I believe that the term of Edge Computing Appliance, while a bit clumsy to me (and I reckon it might be because I am not a native English speaker) is still better than Tier 0 hyper-converged appliance.
Once (and if) Axellio becomes more mainstream/known, expect the hyper-converged pioneers to force you to listen to their new summer hit called “We told you hyper-convergence is the very best” until you’ll want to rip your ears off. And maybe they will be proved true. But still, X-IO brings the concept a few miles farther.
Writing this article was an exciting ride. Every time I hear about a new company or technology, I try to understand what they do and what it is for. Sometimes they use terminology that doesn’t makes much sense. Then you scratch the surface and start reading, and as you go, clarity appears piece by piece, like if you were an archaeologist taking part in excavations, where a little coloured spot turns out to be an incredibly well conserved ancient mosaic.
The analogy is similar here, I started writing about X-IO knowing nothing. Heck, I even thought it was Dell EMC’s XtremIO when the SFD13 presenters were announced, that should give you the sheer level of ignorance. As you may have noticed above, Axellio is an interesting and atypical solution that aims to serve a specific set of business problems. Writing this article and digging around the tech involved turned out to be an exciting activity.
I’m convinced this solution is very well suited for this markets and I very much look forward no only to hear what X-IO have to say about Axellio, but also to try to find an answer to my questions – and be enlightened by the other SFD delegates as well.
This disclosure is written specifically for the Storage Field Day 13 and Pure Storage Accelerate events. I was invited to the Pure Storage Accelerate and Storage Field Day 13 events by Gestalt IT & Pure Storage. Gestalt IT & Pure Storage covered travel expenses to the event, accommodation and food were also covered for the entire event duration. Transportation from home to PRG airport and back, transportation from SFO airport to the hotel as well as food and accommodation costs (on 10-Jun-17) were covered by me.
I did not receive any compensation for the participation in this event, for which I took unpaid time off to be able to attend (as it is the case with any events I participate to). I am not obliged to blog or produce any kind of content. Any tweets, blog articles or any other form of content I have produced or may produce in the future related to this event is the exclusive product of my interest in technology and my will to share information with my peers. Readers might also want to know that at the time of writing I owned two (2) shares of Pure Storage (PSTG.K).
In line with the concept of freedom of thought/critical thinking I commit to share only my own point of view and analysis about any products, technologies, strategies & concepts I was introduced to.