Symbiote Drives

Where the drive is the computer

A better class of computational storage

Symbiote was inspired by the run-of-the-mill, industry-standard 2.5″ form-factor hard drive (HDD). We thought the packaging and size was great, if only we could marry it with something new. This epiphany led us to invent Symbiote – an ultra smart drive ideally suited for the edge!

What could be more symbiotic than infusing incredible computing power directly onto a drive? Others have tried to do similar things but have simply missed the mark by combining such capabilities with the drive’s internally accessible micro-controller. The old way of doing things relied on the system’s main CPU to offload pre-programmed functions to these additional resources.

This created a bottleneck for the already over-tasked CPU that was then forced to carry the additional burden of acting as a centralized arbiter of these computing resources. These earlier forms of smarter drives were also highly proprietary and did not embrace any notion of choice. Fast forward to 2020 and the latest crop of SSD companies are still doing the same thing.

Symbiote is something completely new and different. Each drive becomes a stand-alone computational platform and server. There is no notion of a centralized CPU to become a bottleneck, or to act as an arbiter. Each drive is therefore individually addressable over the network, and can act as an object storage device (OSD).

This stands in stark contrast with conventional network storage architecture, which is more than two decades old and still treats the entire multi-drive system as the OSD. This era of new technology requires a substantially new architecture to take advantage of it.

Unlike its predecessors, symbiote allows you to control how much capacity, whether you want to mix and match flash with hard drive technology, and even what type of software you wish to run. Choices! What a novel concept!

The drive IS your new analytics engine

Today’s complex analytics require data– and lots of it. If we are talking about machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), or just some type of augmented reality (AR), the need for fast storage is substantial. Latency and throughput become much more critical in order to deliver the data to where the analytics are processed.

The whole genre of ‘Computational Storage’ was created to address the needs of these new workloads. But analytics processing (also referred to as neural networks) is very different from offload. While other solutions incorporate offload capabilities, they cannot implement complex neural networks. This is because they do not possess graphics processing units (GPUs).

Our Symbiotes feature embedded GPUs and can perform sophisticated neural networking functions locally, right where the data is stored. What this means is you can ingest the data where it will permanently reside at the lowest CAPEX and OPEX possible, perform your analytics, and then merely send the results to wherever your central indexing resides.

This approach is not only cheaper, but is faster, less complex, and also simply smarter. As we continue to usher in 5G and Edge capabilities, we have a responsibility to be ecologically conscious. Processing data at the drive significantly reduces this network backhaul!

Figure 2: Example diagram of a convolutional neural network

Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are the basic building block for machine learning. While it is conceivable that implementing them onto others’ smart SSDs is possible, doing so would require FPGAs with far too many gates and far too high cost to be effective or scaleable.

Figure 3: Face recognition, as a specific implementation of neural networking, demonstrated by earliest Symbiote prototype at MWC 2018

Contrary to the current crop of smart SSDs, Symbiotes are fully capable of running CNNs. The above diagram shows a series of three CNNs that were used to demonstrate 10ms facial recognition as a VNF (Virtual Network Function) we deployed at the Edge as part of a telecom M-CORD (Mobile Central Office Re-architected as a Data center) deployment at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.

A GPU architecture built for the Edge

Figure 4: One size does not fit all with Edge Computing

The use of GPUs has become synonymous with ML/AI. The reason is quite simple – complex neural processing is computationally intensive. GPUs are capable of massively parallelizing these calculations in a way that general purpose CPUs are not. However, in order for these GPUs to be able to work their magic, the data must be accessible.

With Edge Computing, the source for data is also massively parallel since data comes from millions of subscribers. Funneling data from these sources and getting them into the GPU results in queueing– the exact opposite of what we want to implement. It is essentially a funnel!

Figure 5: Edge Computing requires arrays of GPUs to scale with demand

By distributing massive arrays of low-cost GPUs, Edge Computing can better accommodate the types of ML/AI/AR requests that are associated with such a vast distribution of data sources. Unlike with single, large GPUs, these GPU arrays do not create large choke points for data to be processed. While it is possible to create massive arrays with very powerful GPUs, the costs and power consumption would be counterproductive with the economic scale associated with Edge Computing.

A modular, more scalable architecture to complete a superior technology

Figure 6: Modularity is the secret for the Symbiote

Many have completely mis-calculated what it takes to scale from the Edge to the Data Center. This is reflected by their choice of processors to deploy. The de facto choice for deployments is based on an x86-64 architecture, a safe choice which has been the standard for several years. The issue is not so much the type of processor architecture, but rather the number of cores and the amount of memory, which impacts costs and power consumption.

When we started our original Cachengo concept, we began with comparing architectures for 24-drive storage enclosures. The reason for this was simple, as traditional network storage systems are represented by 12, 16, 24 and 48 drive configurations. At the time it was not deemed very feasible to be able to fit 24 server boards AND 24 drives within a 1U chassis, which became our target form-factor for our solutions.

What we soon discovered shocked us…we found our reference design was 1/10th the cost and 1/15th the power consumption compared to another system using high-volume, standard component parts, based on the status quo architecture. This resulted in an enormous reduction in CAPEX and OPEX!

2018 was largely spent demonstrating the power of running neural networks on drives, while we also worked out our designs and requirements with customers. The end result is a scalable, building-blocks approach to large systems. Rather than base a system architecture on a single large CPU, we now have the flexibility to build really large, fast systems with several smaller components. This ability to extract the capabilities of the many cores within a single CPU is known as coherency.

Achieving this coherent ability is oftentimes assumed, but seldom achieved in this era of very large processors. It is much easier to take a smaller processor, completely saturate it and its I/O, then aggregate many to fill much larger pipes. This is the basis for our design. It also results in the creation of large, scalable GPU arrays like what is depicted in Figure 5.