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Attala Systems shows off 'CPU-less' FPGA storage gear

Startup Attala Systems plans a joint demonstration with Intel at Flash Memory Summit next week. The FPGAs serve as NVMe storage targets and handle processing and network commands.

No, the entire storage world has not gone software-defined. According to Attala Systems Inc., hardware-defined storage technology represents the next stage of evolution in flash storage.

The startup has emerged from stealth to preview a "CPU-less" FPGA storage appliance that consolidates processing, networking and storage functionality on field-programmable gate arrays based on an Altera chipset. Attala and Intel, which owns Altera, this week will demonstrate the FPGA storage technology at the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, Calif.

Attala calls its system the Attala High Performance Composable Storage Infrastructure, and the vendor positions it mainly as storage for cloud providers and private clouds. It consists of FPGA-powered host interfaces and scale-out data nodes connected via a Remote Direct Memory Access over Converged Ethernet version 2 NVM Express fabric. Attala uses FPGA devices as NVMe storage targets. Instead of a motherboard, the FPGAs also handle processing intelligence and network connectivity.

"Our premise is based on one of the main tenets of computer science: You can implement functionality in hardware much more efficiently than you can in software," said Taufik Ma, founder of Attala Systems, based in San Jose, Calif.

The trend in storage has been away from expensive custom FPGAs to systems built on common x86 servers, shifting the differentiating features to the software. But Ma said engineering advances have added value to FPGAs.

"We've reached the point in the industry where you can pack enough logic, enough gates and enough data paths into a single FPGA. An FPGA is [no longer] just a very expensive prototyping platform, but a perfectly affordable production platform," Ma added.

Attala's device tiers flash for price, performance

It remains to be seen if enterprise storage administrators adopt the same view and can be lured to Attala's unusual storage configuration. The Attala compute layer represents one or more x86 servers. Each server has multiple Ethernet links. The vendor said it plans to offer options for 25 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE), 40 GbE and 50 GbE connectivity.

Attala data nodes are based on standard storage enclosures. Its FPGA sits between the network and the NVMe SSDs. The data layer consists of a system of nodes, each of which can scale to support eight Ethernet links in 40 GbE and 50 GbE options. Each data node is rated by the vendor to deliver up to 400 Gbps of data. The data nodes support 2.5-inch U.2 and M.2 cards for tiered flash infrastructure.

"We call them CPU-less servers. They do have integrated portions of the FPGA fabric, but they're not entirely proprietary hardware. We've got a handful of FPGAs that have network connections on one side and SSDs on the other side," Ma said.

Attala claims its automated orchestration and provisioning engine allows NVMe SSDs to be mapped across data nodes to specific applications at full network speed. Product shipments are slated to begin later this year.

The Attala Systems storage appliance provides a redundant data path between the network ports and dual-ported flash drives. The appliances replicate data across SSDs within the enclosure as a hedge against drive failure. The FPGAs can be programmed for advanced data services culled from Intel's Intelligent Storage Acceleration Library.

"There are a lot of legacy software layers that squander the performance of the underlying storage media. An alternative is to install SSDs in the same server that runs your applications, but then you end up with silos or islands of data. Our approach is to unlock the underlying performance of the SSDs, so the resources can be shared across multiple servers," Ma said.

FPGA storage aimed at cloud providers, private cloud deployments

Ma most recently spent nine years as a senior executive at networking vendor Emulex Corp. He previously served as a general manager at Intel's enterprise systems group. He launched Attala Systems in 2015 with Sujith Arramreddy and Sai Gadiraju, founders of ServerWorks and ServerEngines. Broadcom bought ServerWorks for $1 billion in 2001, and Emulex acquired ServerEngines in 2010.

FPGA storage has been gaining steam in public cloud environments. Amazon Web Services in April launched the Amazon EC2 F1 compute instance, which is designed to help developers to quickly write custom hardware accelerators to boost application performance. Microsoft uses FPGAs to accelerate its Bing search engine and its networking infrastructure.

Although cloud services providers are the initial focus, Ma said Attala's storage use cases extend to traditional data centers running big data, e-commerce, financial and other high-frequency applications. He said these types of customers are testing Attala in preproduction, although he declined to identify any of the companies. He said Attala expects to reveal pricing and channel partnerships in the fourth quarter.

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