Is AWS an all-flash storage vendor?

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Looking at the latest announcements and the history of the behemoth of public cloud services, probably yes. And a leading one.

Some recent history

The first informations of AWS using SSDs for its services are dated back into 2012. And from the first announcement, SSDs has been heavily deployed in many services, with a great progression. Just to list few announcements:

August 2012 – Fast Forward – Provisioned IOPS for EBS Volumes: AWS first introduced SSD for their DynamoDB nosql service and for some high-end EC2 instances. After those “tests”, SSDs became a general available option for any virtual machine. “Provisioned IOPS” became a differentiator from HDD that had no guaranteed performances in AWS.

June 2014 – New SSD-Backed Elastic Block Storage: AWS introduced “General Purpose” SSDs, while “Provisioned IOPS” volumes grows in performances to remain the performance storage tier. Interesting to see the SSD is now a “general purpose” storage device.

Nov 2014 – Larger and Faster Elastic Block Store (EBS) Volumes: new SSD disks for EBS up to 16TB each, with “General Purpose SSDs” running at up to 10.000 IOPS, and “Provisioned IOPS SSDs” at 20.000

And those are just the announcements related to EC2 and its EBS permanent storage. SSDs have been enabled by AWS in many more services, like RedShift, DynamoDB, and others. Wherever there’s a need for storage IO activities, AWS has placed SSD on it.

The trend is clear: for its services AWS is offering more and more SSD-backed storage, and less spinning disks. Just one example makes this trend very clear: when you now spin up a new EC2 instance, the default virtual disk for the operating system is SSD, and you need to specifically select HDD if you still want to use it.

Seems AWS is following a plan that my friend Enrico Signoretti has once called “Flash and Trash”: primary workloads and services are all backed by Flash Memory, where there’s a need for premium performances, while everything else (backups, archives, files…) goes into a huge container built with price per GB in mind, and usually backed by an object storage able to scale to massive sizes. AWS plan is following this trend: EC2, EBS and other workloads are running now over SSD, while S3 and Glacier are offered as second level storage targets.

What’s happening

AWS massive scale brings incredible buying power. I don’t have any insights obviously, but I’m pretty sure they are dealing directly with SSD manufacturers, and thanks to the massive amount of devices they are buying since more than 3 years now, I wouldn’t be surprised they could ask for custom designed devices that perfectly fit into their datacenter design, and most of all great per-GB prices to fit into their business model. This is probably making (for them) SSDs more affordable than spinning disks, not just based on the raw price per GB (this is probably still higher than rotating drives), but because SSDs allow for great savings on cooling, which is a huge voice in the expenses for any datacenter.

In IT it’s not uncommon to see market leaders in places they were not supposed to be. Years ago people start arguing VMware was the biggest networking vendor based on the fact there were (and even more today there are) so many (virtual) servers connected to their (virtual) switch ports. Or you can think of Skype as one of the biggest telco in the world, or Paypal as one of the biggest bank worldwide in terms of transactions.

Storage vendors always publish their numbers about flash arrays sales, since it’s a heavily competing market where everyone wants to win. Lately, the number they focus the most is the total amount of TBs they have sold. Probably it’s time to count AWS in this rank, and not in the lowest positions. We are talking about a “vendor” that is 3 years now in the market, with a “Flash first” approach as of today, and with an incredible amount of users that are nowadays probably running most of their primary workloads over Flash storage. To me, these are all traits of an all-flash storage company.

I’ve seen around storage vendors talking about 2-3 USD per GB price for their arrays. Add racking, electricity and cooling, and probably the final price to consume those arrays is a little bit higher. Let’s say 4 USD. EBS General Purpose SSDs are priced at 0.10 USD per month, with no additional cost. Over a 3 years period, this is 3,60 USD per GB. Totally in line with regular vendors.

When looking for a new all-flash array, someone may now start to think that owning one is not to only way to use it…