Nimble Storage looks smart

Further to our blurb on storage generally, this post focuses on Nimble Storage, the newest addition to the Nexus vendor family.

Nimble Storage was introduced to me by Phil Sharratt, one of our lead engineers and someone who was as far as I knew a Netapp bigot.  In a discussion that – uniquely in my experience of first meeting with vendors – started with how 10Gb ethernet connections would be managed under very specific circumstances, I managed to find out that some very well regarded vendors storage people had jumped onto Nimble, which had something special going in the way it had re-architected storage hardware.

This something special turned out to be a hybrid flash and disk architecture based on Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout (CASL™), which takes a different angle on optimising the exceptional performance of flash disk with the lower cost and higher capacities of SATA hard disks.  Without being too technical about this, the magic is to leverage modern CPU and RAM in the storage processors coupled with flash cache to transform random  writes into sequential  writes, which allows accelerated performance. They do it in a way where the disk itself is not the bottleneck – this is normally unheard of in the storage world!

There are also some impressive smarts in the way that the flash is written to, leveraging the nature of flash, which is really quick but actually quite clumsy in some respects.  By using the big fat cache and processors, Nimble only writes to the flash in stripes that match the blocksize on the flash, which garners more efficiencies and incidentally allows cheaper SSD hardware and a longer MTBF. And they couple all of this with compression to generate even further efficiencies.

Over subsequent meetings, it turns out there is a really nice blend of simple and clever going on in the Nimble mix. Simple is the lean product line, easy scaling via more disk, more nodes or a faster engine. Simple is a lean interface to provision, snapshot or replicate data. Clever is the architecture and new way of using flash disks to allow in-line compression as data writes to the array with no performance impact. Clever is also the way they proactively support the systems (they call this proactive wellness). Both simple and clever is bundling all of the management, snapshot and replication software into each and every box

Nexus has been sold to by the best sales guys and guys with the best products, but very rarely has there been excitement and buy-in to the extent that Nimble has managed to generate. The proof is in the testing where we’re in the process of putting it through the paces to see how the hype is matched by the performance. Everyone seems quietly confident that the results will be good.

For a price point starting about $40,000, designed for Microsoft and VMware workloads and other mainstream products, with thin provisioning an especially interesting case, Nimble looks to me a very good fit with some compelling and possibly disruptive value propositions.

Adding Nimble to our portfolio which already includes EMC and Netapp, and a handful more, subject to the testing proving positive, is in line with our value that one size does not fit all. The other partners have a place. We look forward to the discussion to see where Nimble will fit into this space and to offering true choice to customers current and prospective.

Sean Murphy

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