Since VMworld, we’ve been hearing bits and pieces about Liquidware Lab’s storage optimization solution for non-persistent desktops, Flex-IO. At VMworld I was shown a demo of an early version which, at the time, was going to be included as part of ProfileUnity. This was exciting to me because it represented a turning point in the market where storage optimization was essentially obtainable by anyone. If I’m in the market for both storage optimization and profile management, how could I not at least consider Liquidware Labs in both of those discussions? In fact, I even wrote an article about how storage optimization was suddenly becoming a commodity.
The thought process for Liquidware at the time was that the overall optimizations wouldn’t be as feature-rich as more dedicated solutions from classic companies (Atlantis, Greenbytes, Infinio, and about a dozen others). For instance, it only works on non-persistent desktops and there’s no single instance storage, but they say they can do their caching with a smaller memory requirement compared to the competition. Despite any shortcomings, it’s better than nothing, and adding it to ProfileUnity would have helped them win key deals away from AppSense and RES.
When they tested it at customer sites, Liquidware found that Flex-IO will add in the neighborhood of 25,000 IOPS per host using their virtual appliance to cache in RAM. There’s no single instance storage, which is one of the limitations of the solution, but they say they can do their caching with a smaller memory requirement compared to the competition. The performance they saw at beta sites led them to the conclusion that they had something with more value than as an add-on to ProfileUnity, so Flex-IO is now a standalone product. The price is still low compared to the big names (it lists at $3,000 per host), but falls in the middle of the pack compared to the entire space.
It’s worth noting that calculating a direct price comparison between solutions is pretty tough because there are so many pricing models and technologies out there. Some license by the socket, others by the users, and all of them are using different density numbers. That’s before you even consider how effective the optimizations are. You can bet every one of the companies sat down with a spreadsheet and played some games to try to figure out what was easier to position. The bottom line is that it’s hard to believe one generalized statement over another. You’ll have to actually plug in your company’s requirements to get a good idea of how much each solution will cost, and that usually involves getting the product on site.
Flex-IO works with any broker, although it is currently tied to ESX for the host. The installation process involves standing up a virtual appliance, connecting to the web interface, and pointing it to vCenter. Using vCenter, it enumerates the data stores, and lets you pick one that you want to optimize. From there, you can build your desktop environment on it. You can migrate users by assigning them to the new data store, so while it’s not instantly optimized like other solutions, it does seem fairly easy to implement.
Regarding the optimization itself, Flex-IO sets up a NFS data store on existing storage, compressing and caching the common read blocks. Nothing special happens with writes–they’re cached and written back to disk whenever possible. If you’re paying attention, that means that if power should be lost, those uncommitted writes are also lost. Since Flex-IO only works for non-persistent desktops, that shouldn’t be a problem.
In terms of scalability, the solution uses 2 vCPUs to support 200 users, and requires “as little as” 16GB of memory for every 50 users (so for those 200 users, you'd need at least 64GB of RAM). For those just testing, there is a setting that allows you to dedicate as little as 6GB of RAM to test a small lab.
As a proponent of persistent desktops, I’m not in love with the fact that this only supports non-persistent scenarios. That said, there are plenty of non-persistent desktop supporters out there. If you were going to make a lightweight solution that aimed to add some optimizations into an environment, building one for non-persistent means you don’t have as much work to do, so it makes sense. At least, it would make sense to me if this was still a free feature of ProfileUnity. By turning this into a standalone product, Liquidware is inviting competition and a deeper inspection of what is going on under the covers. While I’m sure they’re prepared for that and confident in the outcome, I was looking forward to seeing what sort of disruption it would cause to have a UEM solution on the market that just so happened to include some sort of storage optimization.
Now customers will have to weigh this product against the many others that are out there, when before it would have just been there for people to use. What’s interesting to keep in mind during that evaluation is that despite Liquidware being known for assessment and UEM solutions, the team behind Flex-IO is made up of ex-Vizioncore people. Vizioncore was a data protection and monitoring company that was acquired by Quest software, so they’re probably more comfortable creating storage optimization solutions than they are making UEM solutions. That means they’re not a just software company that thinks they can play in the storage space–they actually do have a background to support it.
I’m anxious to see how all of the different storage optimization solutions shake out in 2014. There are so many that we’re sure to see some dustups between them, trying to decide which method is better, or what provides the best value. With this release, Liquidware is certainly in the fray.