Startup Takes Aim at Performance-Killing Vibration in Datacenter

By Michael Feldman

January 19, 2010

At SC09 last November in Portland, Oregon, I met a fellow named Larry Gordon who related this story:

“I’m riding a train to San Francisco, and I’m reading a newspaper. The train’s vibrating and my arms are vibrating and the newspaper’s vibrating. I can still read the newspaper, but it takes more concentration, so I don’t read as fast as I normally do. It’s just more work to focus on a moving target.”

Makes sense. But why is he telling me this story at a conference about supercomputing? As it turns out, Larry Gordon is the vice president of marketing for a startup called Green Platform Corporation, and the scenario he’s describing on the train is analogous to the problem that hard disk drives encounter when reading and writing data in a datacenter environment — a problem, he believes, the company has solved.

According to Gus Malek-Madani, Green Platform’s founder and CEO, vibration in the datacenter forces a disk drive to work extra hard to perform reads and writes, degrading performance. And not just a little. Independent tests indicate as much as two-thirds of I/O throughput is being lost due to vibration. Worse yet, as performance suffers, the disk has to do additional work to access data, slowing down the entire compute system and raising power consumption proportionally. Tests indicate that as vibration increases, energy use can more than double for a given job.

The source of all this vibration includes the hard drives themselves (the mechanical motion of the spinning platter and actuator arm movement), cooling fans, and chiller pumps, as well as the cumulative vibration reverberating back and forth between racks. While most solid state components are relatively immune to vibration, spinning disks are not. “The performance of these drives is incredibly damaged by vibration,” Malek-Madani told me.

Malek-Madani has made a 25-year career of using carbon fiber to battle the forces of vibration. In fact, Green Platform is an offshoot of another company of his called Composite Products, which offers anti-vibration racks and shelves for the high-end audio/video and scientific markets. Malek-Madani got the idea in his head that computer disks might also benefit from vibrational dampening, and when some initial tests (on a desktop PC) proved out, he decided to pursue the solution that would make commercial sense: disk storage in datacenters.

The solution he and his new company came up with is rather simple: build whole racks out of carbon fiber material and other composites to dampen datacenter vibration. (Carbon fiber is the same material used in aircraft and golf clubs for its superior strength, weight advantages and vibration damping characteristics.) The Green Platform rack, called the AVP-1000 (prototype pictured below) is designed to replace the traditional steel rack with a carbon fiber one. The AVP, which stands for Anti-Vibration Platform, is built as a standard 19-inch enclosure and is compatible with typical storage server form factors.
AVP-1000 Prototype

Up until now, hard drive manufacturers were concerned with vibration, but almost exclusively from a reliability point of view. It’s well understood that too much internal vibration inside the drive mechanism risks a disk failure. When vibration is detected, the actuator arm can freeze or slow down in order to prevent a head crash. The idea here is to protect the data media at the expense of a temporary performance drop. But the design treats the symptom, not the cause, and does nothing to address the cumulative effects of vibration in the environment. Green Platform treats the effects of normal and ongoing levels of ambient vibration in datacenters as well as shocks from seismic causes, rolling dollies, elevators, subways, construction, etc.

All of this is part of the more general problem of hard disk technology, which is stuck between the digital and mechanical worlds. As the density of disk media has become greater, more bits per square inch can be stored on the media, making it increasingly difficult for the actuator arm and read/write head to find a specific piece of information. Thus, while storage capacities have increased, access times have not kept up.

Likewise, the effect of mechanical vibration also works against the trend of denser media. Returning to Gordon’s original analogy of reading a newspaper on a train, it’s as if the read/write head at the end of the actuator must adjust to ever-smaller fonts. The idea that datacenter vibration is causing significant I/O performance degradation is supported by the poor performance hard disks often exhibit in the field compared to the manufacturers’ specs.

Recent tests seem to back up these claims. Lab testing by Sun Microsystems’ Systems Dynamic Characterization and Control team in San Diego looked at the effect of sequential I/O on SATA drives. They found that as the vibration level increased, disk throughput dropped from 40 to 15 MB/second. At the same time, the amount of energy the system consumed to write 10 terabytes of data increased from about 1.7 to 4.5 kilowatt-hours. The Sun testing also found that Green Platform’s AVP rack effectively dissipates nearly all of the vibration through the critical range of frequencies, restoring performance close to the no-vibration state.

Another set of tests performed by Q-Associates, a system integrator, compared I/O performance of the Green Platform AVP racks and steel racks in a Tier 1 datacenter environment. These tests used the more robustly built SAS drives (2.5-inch), which, by design, should be more resistant to vibrational stress. What they found was the AVP racks increased IOPS performance significantly: 56 to 246 percent for random reads and 34 to 88 percent for random writes, with the larger file sizes benefitting the most.

According to Malek-Madani, the overall result is that the Green Platform racks boost storage throughput by as much as 250 percent, while proportionally decreasing energy consumption related to powering and cooling the storage equipment. There is also evidence that suggests vibration dampening will lengthen MTBF (mean time between failure) for storage hardware, thus reducing support costs.

The price premium for a Green Platform rack compared to a traditional metal rack is significant. According to Gordon, an AVP will cost four to five times that of a steel rack (which runs around $2,000). But to Gordon, that’s not the way to look at this solution. Since the AVP-1000 improves performance and lowers energy costs, the rack can pay for itself in less than 12 months — sometimes much less. Where data throughput, as opposed to data capacity, is the limiting factor of the storage infrastructure, an AVP solution means you will need fewer storage servers. If you can cut your storage infrastructure by a third, payback happens on the first day, says Gordon.

In fact, according to him, the AVP delivers the type of performance enhancement that solid state drive (SSD) caching provides. “Datacenters are spending tens of thousands of dollars on high-speed caching to improve storage performance,” notes Gordon. “Essentially, we provide similar benefits, and we’re much lower cost than storage caching.”

Although Gordon and Malek-Madani think their AVP solution has broad applicability to the enterprise storage space, their initial entry point into the market will be in high performance computing, where storage performance is often the bottleneck. This is especially true in applications like seismic data analysis, which can take days, weeks or even months to process. Shortening the cycle time for that analysis is a critical path to revenue for these oil and gas companies. Beyond HPC, they see a $5 billion dollar market opportunity in the enterprise.

Today, the company is offering the AVP rack in limited quantities for pilot studies in partnership with certain storage OEMs and system integrators. (For the time being, the company is keeping the names of these interested parties to itself.) The initial business model will involve partnerships with some of these same integrators and OEMs, who will bundle their product with storage servers. According to Gordon, they have already begun a number of these relationships and are making “new connections” on a daily basis, and some of these relationships are in the process of being formalized.

They’re also looking for an influx of funding, which to date has been accomplished internally, presumably through Malek-Madani’s Composite Products business. External funding is being sought to continue testing, add a vice president of sales and help scale up manufacturing.

In the short-term, the company is looking to develop some case studies from the pilot studies and expand the program to additional user sites. “We realize that we’re making some pretty extraordinary claims,” admits Gordon. “At least early in the market, we expect people will want to prove this to themselves.”

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Researchers Scale COSMO Climate Code to 4888 GPUs on Piz Daint

October 17, 2017

Effective global climate simulation, sorely needed to anticipate and cope with global warming, has long been computationally challenging. Two of the major obstacles are the needed resolution and prolonged time to compute Read more…

By John Russell

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Cluster Competition coverage has come to its natural home: H Read more…

By Dan Olds

UCSD Web-based Tool Tracking CA Wildfires Generates 1.5M Views

October 16, 2017

Tracking the wildfires raging in northern CA is an unpleasant but necessary part of guiding efforts to fight the fires and safely evacuate affected residents. One such tool – Firemap – is a web-based tool developed b Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Transforming Genomic Analytics with HPC-Accelerated Insights

Advancements in the field of genomics are revolutionizing our understanding of human biology, rapidly accelerating the discovery and treatment of genetic diseases, and dramatically improving human health. Read more…

Exascale Imperative: New Movie from HPE Makes a Compelling Case

October 13, 2017

Why is pursuing exascale computing so important? In a new video – Hewlett Packard Enterprise: Eighteen Zeros – four HPE executives, a prominent national lab HPC researcher, and HPCwire managing editor Tiffany Trader Read more…

By John Russell

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Read more…

By Dan Olds

Intel Delivers 17-Qubit Quantum Chip to European Research Partner

October 10, 2017

On Tuesday, Intel delivered a 17-qubit superconducting test chip to research partner QuTech, the quantum research institute of Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. The announcement marks a major milestone in the 10-year, $50-million collaborative relationship with TU Delft and TNO, the Dutch Organization for Applied Research, to accelerate advancements in quantum computing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fujitsu Tapped to Build 37-Petaflops ABCI System for AIST

October 10, 2017

Fujitsu announced today it will build the long-planned AI Bridging Cloud Infrastructure (ABCI) which is set to become the fastest supercomputer system in Japan Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Intel Debuts Programmable Acceleration Card

October 5, 2017

With a view toward supporting complex, data-intensive applications, such as AI inference, video streaming analytics, database acceleration and genomics, Intel i Read more…

By Doug Black

OLCF’s 200 Petaflops Summit Machine Still Slated for 2018 Start-up

October 3, 2017

The Department of Energy’s planned 200 petaflops Summit computer, which is currently being installed at Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, is on track t Read more…

By John Russell

US Exascale Program – Some Additional Clarity

September 28, 2017

The last time we left the Department of Energy’s exascale computing program in July, things were looking very positive. Both the U.S. House and Senate had pas Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Cray Moves to Acquire the Seagate ClusterStor Line

July 28, 2017

This week Cray announced that it is picking up Seagate's ClusterStor HPC storage array business for an undisclosed sum. "In short we're effectively transitioning the bulk of the ClusterStor product line to Cray," said CEO Peter Ungaro. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Advances Web-based Quantum Programming

September 5, 2017

IBM Research is pairing its Jupyter-based Data Science Experience notebook environment with its cloud-based quantum computer, IBM Q, in hopes of encouraging a new class of entrepreneurial user to solve intractable problems that even exceed the capabilities of the best AI systems. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Intel, NERSC and University Partners Launch New Big Data Center

August 17, 2017

A collaboration between the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), Intel and five Intel Parallel Computing Cente Read more…

By Linda Barney

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This