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Reflections on Storage Technology Showcase 2020

In early March, before conferences of all types across the country shut down and social distancing was mandated, I was sitting in a conference room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attending the Storage Technology Showcase 2020 and it struck me, I was surrounded by power users. Many of the participants were storage users who push the capabilities of data storage technology to the limit. Every industry has power users; in the automotive industry, it is those that demand the fastest and highest performing cars. Think of NASCAR or the 24 hours of Le Mans. The drivers push race cars to their limits. For data storage, the power users for storage are the organizations that perform high-performance computing.

Several of the presentations were from storage managers at supercomputing centers that performed research in energy and weather systems. They highlighted the demanding storage environments for high-performance computing. In practice, this means a lot of flash, a lot of disk, and massive quantities of tape connected via high-speed networks. For example, to support the existing Cray XC-40 and coming Perlmutter supercomputers, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) 2020 storage architecture includes more than 30 PB of flash, 340 PB of disk, and .5 EB of tape storage.

One of the themes of the conference was the importance of tape storage in cost-effectively managing massive amounts of archive data. For example, the European Centre for medium-range weather forecasts (ECMWF) has over 450 PB of archive data stored on tape and adds another 260 TB/Day. At these capacity points, tape storage is essential not only for financial reasons but also for other features: volumetric efficiency, a long media life and energy savings.

A surprising presentation was Western Digital Corporation’s “Tape to the future presentation." While most of us think of WDC as an HDD and Flash company, the presentation highlighted the potential of dramatic growth in the amount of data stored on tape in the coming decade. This growth will be driven by the growth of archive data in hyperscale data centers. To meet these needs, several cost, packaging, performance, and storage architecture requirements were suggested.

The final theme that several presentations touched on was the challenge of migrating storage infrastructure to new technology while maintaining service levels. Migrations present a host of challenges, and different approaches were taken due to widely differing environments and history. Given the substantial amounts of data stored and the value of the information, a great deal of planning was done, and the migration process spanned months, or even years.

Overall, it was a very informative conference with a wealth of real-world user case studies and information on storage technology from important suppliers. The conference agenda and presentations can be found here: STS2020. While the digital data explosion continues, technology is rapidly evolving to help organizations manage the challenge effectively.

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