Doug's IT Tech Tip: How to Interview an SSD Vendor for Your VDI Deployments

By Doug Rollins - 2014-10-20

Solid State StorageI’m the first to admit it: In the enterprise SSD world, I’m an ”insider”—and in this case, that’s not a bad thing. I work in Micron’s Storage Business Unit, specifically with enterprise SSDs. As an enterprise SSD insider, I wanted to pull back the covers a bit and take a frank look at what SSDs can (and can’t) do to help overcome the challenges faced by so many IT shops on a daily basis.

To that end I’ve decided to start a blog series entitled “IT Tech Tips” that looks at flash storage in the data center. This inaugural post will take a closer look at SSDs in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and how to ‘grill’ a potential SSD vendor to make sure they have a clue.

So let’s get started.

As an IT manager you’ve been asked to deploy VDI to help reduce desktop costs as your company grows. But you also know that you can’t sacrifice user application responsiveness because you want to maintain employee productivity.

You’re in a tough spot.

You’ve done your homework—you know SSDs can help. Between far better performance and far lower latency, you know you’ll be using flash, but whose? How do you know whose SSDs are worth looking into in more detail, and whose will fall flat on their (figurative) faces as to not be worth your time?  You need to start by asking the tough questions and I’ve provided, what I believe, to be the top five below:

1. How can your SSDs ensure my virtual desktops are there when my users need them?

Hint: Look for answers that go into the details of data resiliency—at the SSD level. Don’t settle for marketing answers and buzz. Hammer the SSD vendor for specifics. How is data protected while still inside the SSD?  How does the vendor ensure no bits get flipped as those bits pass through the data path (catastrophic for some VDI designs!)?  What does the vendor’s design do to ensure your users get up and running quickly following an unexpected power loss?

The bottom line: Details are what is important here.  Don’t settle for buzz. Insist on block diagrams and ensure they can explain the logic of any protection/recovery mechanisms so you can understand and communicate it to your organization and company-wide.

2. My management is looking to increase productivity from the user base; my users want fast, responsive platforms; what specifically do your SSDs do to help me achieve both?

Hint: Again, look for specifics. Avoid vendors who gloss over (or don’t understand) the potential challenges.  Look for vendors who address specific concerns focused on ease of management (built-in data protection, reliability enhancements, and no supply issues), as well as user experience: slow systems during boot storms and the I/O blender effect.  Look for a supplier who not only understands that these are challenges…but who also understands why, and how to help address them. 

The bottom line: Vagueness here should earn a one-way ticket through the door—they are wasting your time.

3. As our test VDI deployments succeed, we plan to roll this out to most users company-wide: what specifically enables me to do this with your SSDs?

Hint: This question is really about ease of scaling.  Suppose you roll out a test deployment and, of course, it is wildly successful.  You are looking to understand exactly what your potential SSD supplier can do to make scaling easier.  Look for answers that demonstrate easy adoption and easy growth, like supporting hot-add/hot-swap form factors, a wide variety of capacities, roadmaps that include emerging storage protocols, and different interface options.  The key is to enable you to choose what is best for your deployment.

The bottom line: VDI can be done in dozens of ways, so look for an SSD supplier who understand this, offers a wide variety of the protocols, interfaces, and form factors that enable you to succeed.

4. I expect our VDI implementation to grow rapidly, but sporadically.  What do you do as a supplier to ensure I can keep on schedule?

Hint: You are really looking for assurance that you won’t get a “…sorry, we are out of stock…” reply when you place that PO to drive VDI company-wide.  Hiccups in vendor supply can screw up your deployment plans and the overall acceptance and return on the investment.  Look for vendors who have more control here—vendors who make more of the components and rely less on third parties or subcontractors.

The bottom line: You need what you need when you need it.  It is that simple.

5. How do you support customers once they buy?

Hint: This one is easy and relevant to more than just VDI. Who do you contact when something doesn’t work?  What is their background?  How are they tied into the rest of the organization?  Do they have direct access to additional resources?  What are those resources?  How much detail can you get back when something fails (yes, it will happen)?  Can they find out what went wrong?  Ask them how they would do this.  Ask them what they will actually tell you about failures.  Ask for a sample failure analysis report!  (This should be a good indication of what you can expect if you choose them.)

The bottom line: SSD vendors run the gamut—from some who do all their own design, fabrication, assembly, validation, and support, to those who do some of these things, to those who do very little.  The hard truth is something IS going to fail.  The value of a vendor lies in what they can and will tell you about the failure and their ability to prevent it from happening again.

You probably see a theme here:

  1. Look for detailed explanations of features that will help your VDI deployments succeed.
  2. Make sure the SSD vendor understands the hurdles to successful VDI.
  3. Don’t settle for hype or some vague answer that relies on, “We’re huge in this business…trust us.”
  4. Ensure the vendor really has control over delivery.  Look for a vendor that builds more, buys less, and is not subject to the whims of the component market.
  5. Make sure the vendor has the understanding and resources to help.

You have many choices. You need to find a vendor who can clearly communicate why their product is right for your deployment. The best way to do that is to ask hard questions that are relevant to you and to not accept vague answers.

It is your design, your deployment. You need a vendor who understands you’re on the line if something goes wrong, a vendor that is right there with you to make it right again.

Doug Rollins

Doug Rollins

Doug Rollins is a principal technical marketing engineer for Micron's Storage Business Unit, with a focus on enterprise solid-state drives. He’s an inventor, author, public speaker and photographer. Follow Doug on Twitter: @GreyHairStorage.