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Symbolic IO CEO insists the IRIS i1 is more than a bunch of pretty lights

TechLive demo has raised a lot of questions

Interview The TechLive session revealed Symbolic IO's IRIS i1 box, and its tech continues to raise lots of questions. How do the components work? Why have certain design choices been made? How does the IRIS system compare to other servers?

We asked the company lots of questions about its technology and CEO and founder Brian Ignomirello provided the answers below. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and read on...


El Reg Why have an EYE ASIC? What is the reasoning for having such a device, as server manufacturers don't generally use such devices?

Brian Ignomirello The Symbolic IO EYE is a patent-pending device that is a multi-modal display for visualizing the IRIS's condition and function at far distances without strain; its display can also be found in IRIS UI. The EYE acts as a major security element for the IRIS i1 System: this proprietary ASIC is not hackable.

The unit demonstrated at A3 Communications' Technology Live! event is packed with lots of sensors to further the internal and environmental intelligence. Features like an advanced TRAUMA sensory system, Global Positioning System, and Atomic Clocking are just a few. You'll always know where your IRIS is and you'll always know if someone is tampering with the unit long before they get inside of the chassis.

We can't address why other vendors never leveraged such advanced designs in their products. The EYE is the heart of the system and provides a layer of security never before achieved.

El Reg Why is its slot positioned at the rear of the unit where it is difficult to reach?

Brian Ignomirello The EYE is in the front of the system: it is part of IRIS i1 "face plate"/bezel and is removable. The only EYE-related components in the rear of i1 are the twin SMA antenna systems. Customers who order just IRIS COMPUTE are not outfitted with an EYE or the rear antenna system.

El Reg Is the StorModule an NVDIMM-F type device?

Brian Ignomirello Our SIO labs have tested such devices; Symbolic IO's compute and marker methods certainly improve NVDIMM-F devices, but we have found that NVDIMM-F performs very slow in contrast to the speeds achieved with Symbolic IO's StorModules.

Unlike any other "store media" platform, Symbolic IO StorModules do not have the high latency found in flash in the memory channel. Furthermore, there is no limit to how many StorModules populate the memory bus unlike what you will find with NVDIMM-F and even 3D-Xpoint. These are designed and produced internally by SIO using all commodity components.

El Reg Is it a commodity device or made specially for Symbolic IO?

Brian Ignomirello IRIS i1 is a ground-up design, using all commodity components that easily can become the new commodity.

Symbolic IO has gone through a painstaking journey (like Apple) to create a near-perfect platform free of challenges found when using unreliable and unpredictable COTS (Common Off The Shelf) hardware model. The chassis is custom made for Symbolic IO to SIO's rigorous design specifications. The IRIS i1 unit shown at A3 Communications' event most likely is one of the most flexible and modular chassis ever created in a 2U form factor. As an example, end-users have the flexibility to house and run two Nvidia K1 class GPU cards if desired, without thermal-related issues!


El Reg Is there 10GB of RAM per StorModule and 10GB of 3D NAND for the persistent storage?

Brian Ignomirello Symbolic IO has a very detailed StorModule roadmap. The most demanded modules today are the 128GB modules. NAND is only used for de-stage and power-off/Power Outage NV storage for DRAM. During normal operation of the i1 system it does not use NAND at all!

El Reg Is the computer on the StorModule like an SSD controller with firmware or is it more akin to an ARM CPU?

Brian Ignomirello No, each StorModule has a small intelligent memory controller on-board.

El Reg What does the StorModule controller/computer look after?

Brian Ignomirello Several areas, some will not be mentioned. The most important area is a level of power management and power monitoring used for triggering fail-safe RAM to persistent NV storage during any fault condition, including power.

El Reg How does a StorModule compare to FlashDIMMs from Diablo Technologies (NVDIMM-F) or battery-backed DIMMs from HPE?

Brian Ignomirello SIO certainly has some bias on this topic. Our research and development has concluded that currently nothing outside of a RAM chip matches the speeds achieved using SIO StorModules. These findings aren't just from Symbolic IO LABS but many head-to-head customer comparison tests.

We cannot comment on Diablo at this time. In regards to HPE, head-to-head tests performed at a customer site have shown that Symbolic IO beat HPE by a colossal margin. On top of outperforming HPE in both throughput and latency the customer found setting up and using IRIS was far easier; their setup took five minutes!

Perhaps more importantly their tested workloads proved they could easily achieve a 21:1 server consolidation, eliminate or drastically reduce software licensing costs, and eliminate hypervisor licensing costs and gain greater virtualization features and tools!

Symbolic IO has deep IP surrounding this area; from power management of such chips and power distribution. Batteries are dangerous and should not be put into a server! In addition the maintenance of batteries is just terrible. Poor design at best.

Another major area of difference is how Symbolic IO addresses and uses compared technologies.

SymCE OS and CPU

El Reg Does SymCE OS provide a Linux environment for applications? If so, which one please?

Brian Ignomirello SymCE is part of IRIS VAULT. You need this to have SymCE and reap the rewards of the amazing features.

We support all versions of LINUX to run on IRIS i1. No limitations at all. We even support Solaris and other UNIX platforms running on i1 as well. Even Lustre.

El Reg Does it run virtual machines?

Brian Ignomirello Yes, you can take advantage of the IHV (Infused hypervisor) and virtualize anything you'd like. Deploy faster and easier than ever before. More importantly allocate those VMs with far fewer resources, while performing so much faster. 20x less RAM, 4x less CPU, which in this world means 'cores' that many applications vendors charge for SW by.

El Reg What CPU, and core count does IRIS i1 use?

Brian Ignomirello We offer one configuration at this time which is two Haswell 2699v4 (44 cores). We can use other processors but decided to offer only one at this time. Our roadmap is rich with possible new SKUs going forward.

Stage and de-stage

El Reg Why are there windows in the top lid?

Brian Ignomirello Customers have always liked some level of 'bright and shiny' objects, e.g. all the James Bond movies, even with DEC mini-computers with lights and all. Not quite windows. The material used is EMI reflective like metal. This allows users to slide their i1 from the rack slightly out if they need to check the status of the StorModules. This is done without the need to open their chassis.

El Reg If IRIS i1 is rack-mounted with other items above it then staff can't see the top lid?

Brian Ignomirello Simple... Just slide i1 partially out of the rack and you can see in; no need to fully pull the unit from the rack.

El Reg Is this just a demo unit feature?

Brian Ignomirello No. This is a design that is going to market here in the United States.

El Reg Are the windows there just to show the stage/de-stage lighting effects?

Brian Ignomirello Partially correct: the windows provide visibility to de-stage and staging. However, there are other (undisclosed) visual patterns to aid customer support and diagnostics.

El Reg Are the StorModule lights in place to show the stage/de-stage progress because staging and de-staging takes minutes and the lights pass the time?

Brian Ignomirello Lights are not decorations. They have a purpose and can help the owner and operator understand what is occurring at different stages if required.

El Reg Couldn't stage/de-stage progress be shown on an IRIS i1 screen GUI?

Brian Ignomirello If you are first powering up then no as staging occurs with Symbolic IO's BIOS. At a de-stage there is no power so, no. However, if need be it's easy to see due to the windows on the top of i1's lid.

El Reg Why does stage and de-stage take minutes?

Brian Ignomirello [It's a] complex equation that contains four parts: {Mass | Time | Throughput | Energy}. The Symbolic IO team has become the de facto experts in this area, as they have had years of a head start in this emerging space. The bigger the module the more time and energy is needed. This is why Symbolic IO was maniacal in designing the right hardware, the right power management, firmware, BIOS components and energy sources. All of this was far from a trivial task!

We have a no-risk policy of data loss at staging, de-staging or anywhere in between.


El Reg How would you position IRIS i1 against existing servers, such as HPE ProLiants – a 2U DL380 say, with a Xeon E5-2600 v3, v4 CPU? Also Dell PowerEdge and Cisco UCS?

Brian Ignomirello We have competed against: HPE, Cisco UCS and NetApp, IBM, and Lenovo. We have results from customers that compare i1 against all of these platforms. More importantly all tests were done using real-world machine configurations, app and customer data across most workloads. One of our customers came up with a test for IRIS i1. To date not a single vendor could run this configuration. This includes HPE, Dell, Lenovo and Cisco.

El Reg Could you estimate how an IRIS i1 system compares in performance to a 160GB RAM ProLiant DL380 or some other server with the same CPU as IRIS i1 and DRAM capacity please?

Brian Ignomirello Honestly, we annihilate the competition. Remember 20x less and 4x less CPU required any OS and any app. The effect of SymCE is stark and drastic as it reduces the amount of time that the DRAM bus is used with the Symbolic Markers that are created the first time data is ingested. The more that is ingested, the more effect it has on all the data within. This means the systems you mention require 20x more RAM, 4x more CPU just to try to keep up. Even with the competition throwing large CPU and RAM resources thrown at it they can keep up with the IO speeds that IRIS i1 produces. Game over.

El Reg How would you position IRIS i1 against hyperconverged (HCV) systems such as those from Nutanix and Dell's VxRail and VcRack?

Brian Ignomirello i1 is what you would think as a hyperconverged system, but the value of i1 is obvious from above and what you saw, meaning that all the other pieces of infrastructure for any customer are reduced, thus all the other capex and opex are reduced vs what all other HCV systems require to be meaningful (but with much higher TCA and TCO).

We don't believe in HCV; after all isn't HCV just a server running a hypervisor and with some flash? HCV is not a fundamental change in how things are computed. Symbolic IO is. When any of these platforms can provide 15 million IOPS without an aggregate or multimode system we'll be happy to compare. A single i1 blows away anything these "HCV" platforms try to do.

Migration to IRIS

El Reg If I run a general enterprise on-premises data centre what applications would be good candidates to run on IRIS i1?

Brian Ignomirello All of them. In the broadest sense, all applications are germane for us. After all, one does not go to their RAM manufacturer (e.g. Micron or Samsung) and ask "for what applications is your RAM best suited?" The answer is, of course, every application. Symbolic IO is the same – we benefit every application.

Having said that, in the real world, there are many applications which are particularly I/O bound in normal operation on legacy architecture, and/or are extremely expensive to run and maintain, because of commercial software licence/maintenance fees. Running said applications on IRIS typically results in far lower expenditure through the significant reduction of cores and RAM resources required.

This is a 'double' benefit – the applications run much more efficiently, since many more applications can run simultaneously inside IRIS than other platforms, as well as the economic savings through server consolidation and reduced software license expense.

For example, running your instance of Microsoft SQL Server in four cores and 4GB of RAM rather than 16 cores and 80GB of RAM. Oh, and running it at much lower transactional latency as well, even though the resources required are far less. Or running a Cassandra cluster across just 15 IRIS i1s instead of 175 Lenovo blade servers, at 3x reduced average and 99th-percentile latencies.

Both of the above citations are real-world proof-of-concept cases, by the way, not just marketing fluff.

But again, the point is this – any application can benefit, and combined with our infused hypervisor in IRIS Vault, any application using any OS and any filesystem(s).

El Reg How would I migrate them to IRIS i1?

Brian Ignomirello There are many ways. Easiest is use the Symbolic IO migration toolset. Migration is free with purchase of an i1.

  1. Navigate to the UI
  2. Answer a few questions in the Migration Wizard 
  3. Provide proper user authentication rights to the legacy system 
  4. Click go... 
  5. Have a coffee or beer. IRIS will take care of the rest for you.

Also if it's slow to migrate VMs blame your old server, slow storage and saturated network. The longest part of the migration is the time the old server takes to send IRIS the VM components file. We are happy to show a demo of this in action.

El Reg How would I size them to see if they could run on IRIS i1?

Brian Ignomirello We have a guide available to customers as well as world-class field systems engineers that are extremely knowledgeable. If you're adventurous you can migrate a machine and adjust all the settings yourself. (e.g. sockets, cores, threads, RAM, etc); if that's your choice then the best place to start is to follow the SIO rule of thumb: 20x less RAM, 4x less CPU.

One example we have seen is Windows 7 for VDI that requires four cores and 4GB of RAM on a competing system, which should be setup as 1Core and 256MB of RAM on IRIS i1. Bottom line is Symbolic IO is here to help and guide customers through this fairly simple process.

El Reg How would I know if their working set data would fit into IRIS's StorModules? Or into the StorModules and 20TB tier-2 IRIS i1 PCIe solid state storage?

Brian Ignomirello Symbolic IO field systems engineering can help you determine this. There are several confidential ways we approach this. We believe we have covered all working sets possible today with our offerings, but our roadmap is aware the future means larger working sets for Big Data, machine intelligence, etc, and we will deliver on that for all customers.

El Reg What about networking requirements; what networking does IRIS i1 support?

Brian Ignomirello IRIS i1 is the most flexible system. Most customers keep the BLINK socket available for the optional BLINK card, However, a customer will still have five slots left to put in anything they want. SymCE is very adaptable and can handle a plethora of Fibre Channel HBAs, InfiniBand cards, Converged Network Adapters (CNAs), iSCSI ToE boards, etc. Remember IRIS is a server. ®

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