Nithya A. Ruff is the director of SanDisk Open Source Strategy Office. The company recently joined The Linux Foundation and we met up with her at LinuxCon to understand SanDisk’s plans for Linux and Open Source.

Nithya & Open Source

Nithya Ruff recalls that she was exposed to Open Source back in 1999 at SGI. There she worked with the two really influential people in her life – Jeremy Ellison, the maintainer of Samba, and Dave McAllister who used to run open-source, open standards at Adobe. “They were my partners at SGI and together we worked on creating the open source strategy at SGI,” recalls Ruff.

That partnership left an everlasting impression on Ruff about how important it was to collaborate across companies and communities to solve problems. “If you want to solve problems you can’t really work in silos,” says Nithya Ruff.

SanDisk and Linux

SanDisk is one of the leaders of Flash-based storage and they operate in very diverse markets. SanDisk is in retail, cameras, USB sticks, mobile phones, laptops, embedded devices, but its solutions also range all the way to enterprise, hyperscale and cloud flash-based storage solutions.

When a company operates in such a diverse market, it also comes across all the disruption happening in those spaces. Interestingly, much of that disruption is driven by Open Source. So it was natural for SanDisk to work closely with Linux & Open Source communities.

“If you look at mobile, for instance, Android and Linux is the ecosystem that you need to work with if you are a player in that market space. In the enterprise, particularly, you have to embrace Linux in the data center because flash is often on the server-side as well as in storage systems. Then in hyperscale cloud environments, it’s all about open-source in the OpenStack or Open Compute communities. So we realized that, in couple of years, Open Source will be the key driver in the markets in which we work and we need to collaborate with Open Source communities and the Linux Foundation in order to flash enable some of the technology innovations that are happening in that space.”

There are many subgroups within Linux that SanDisk works with. They engage with the groups who either affect or are impacted by flash.

“…when you look at SOC’s in the mobile space, and Android as the host system, we work with memory subsystem or file subsystems on Linux and enable them to work more easily with flash.”

Flashing the hard solutions stuck on hard drives and tapes

As Linux is becoming omnipresent. It is becoming increasingly important for flash players to engage with the Linux community because the way conventional media such as tape and hard drives work is quite different from the way flash works. A lot of technologies which were developed for conventional media and don’t take full advantage of flash.

Nithya gives one such example where working closely with the Linux community is the best way to recognize and solve such problems, “The read and write path for flash, as an example, is different than it is for other types of memory. We optimize it so it can work more efficiently with flash.”

“We are working with Ceph, for example (which is supported by Inktank, and now Red Hat), on the file systems to make sure that it is able to take advantage of the performance benefits of flash. What typically happens is that a lot of software has been built around hard drives and tapes so there is latency in the reads and writes; and sometimes built-in redundancy. So what we are doing is making sure that these file systems and memory systems can work with flash. We are contributing back those changes to the Ceph community so everyone can benefit from them.”

Where is flash based storage going?

Quite a lot is happening in the storage space for mainly two reasons – the increase in volume of data and the massive increase in the number of devices which are generating and accessing this data; whether it is mobile devices or social networks. New data is being created and accessed at an exponential rate. However, it’s not just about the volume of data, but also about how fast a user is creating it and how fast it is being accessed from the ‘cloud’.

“There is a need for a different way to architect storage in the cloud and that’s where open source is playing a huge role with the likes of Ceph, OpenStack and other open source based systems,” says Ruff.

She further adds, “What we think flash lends to this new architecture is the fact that it is tremendously dense. So you can pack a lot of storage into small space, which is important in massive data centers that require this kind of storage.”

Other areas where flash plays a big role are in energy efficiency, reliability and–most importantly–performance.

Ruff explains, “Most importantly, flash also brings performance to the table because it’s no longer enough to just store away the data. There is an interaction with the data that’s needed and the performance is important. You need capacity and performance in this kind of architecture.”

SanDisk is working with the likes of Ceph and Gluster so that they can marry flash with scale out architectures and build massive scale storage for the cloud to use.

“To me, flash is important media for all kinds of data center environments and, frankly speaking, it’s an important media for the other side of the data center, which is the edge devices and the internet of things. When it comes to mobile, the form factors are such that you want something that’s small, energy-efficient, not mechanical, and that can fit into these tiny devices that can bring the performance that you want. Most of us are very impatient with our personal devices – we want them to perform close to real time. So in both these areas, I see flash playing a very big role.”

Working with communities

One of the best ways to interact directly with the community and other players is by participating in events like LinuxCon.

“…it was all about dialogue, to ask the community about how we should play with them and where can we make a contribution. They know our strengths, they know where we are coming from, and they know where the gaps are and where they need industry’s help in moving forward. So I am also trying to work closely with the storage groups, storage subsystem groups, file system groups and memory groups.”

A new comer to Linux

SanDisk has been a user of Open Source for a while, like most companies. However, now they are actively and directly engaging with the Linux community for mutual benefit.

“We are a newcomer to open source and the Linux community this year. I give SanDisk tremendous amount of credit because for the past five years we have been a consumer of open source. Over the last five years we have come to the realization that we need to collaborate with the open source community at large. We need to give and take. We need to work with other companies to move things forward. So SanDisk has established an open source strategy office and I am pleased to be the first leader of that office. We have a very good structured working group, a steering committee, as well as an interest group. Some of our first contributions have been in Ceph and we have made some kernel contributions as well. Part of my job in Open Strategy office is, as I call it, six Cs: find where we can consume open source, where we can contribute to open source, how we can build competency around open source, how we can collaborate, how we can communicate and how we can make sure we are compliant.”

More women will fix the culture

Nithya Ruff is one of those women who are actively contributing to Linux and Open Source and since SanDisk is going to work directly with the community it was obvious for me to ask about the culture within the Linux Community which can be seen as a bit unwelcoming for women at times.

Nithya Ruff says, “I personally haven’t faced anything like that and I have been very, very lucky to have tremendous collaboration, perhaps it’s because I work on the strategy and business side; I’m not in the IRC chat rooms and coding.”

But she is aware of the challenges there are and she strongly believes, “as more women join these mailing lists the culture will change. I am highly in favor of creating rules of engagements in these groups, a code of conduct that everyone abides by. We all have an obligation to make the world a better place and we make an impact in these groups. When someone joins the group you make sure that you are sensitive to the group ethos and hold people accountable. It’s not just for women it’s for many men who are sensitive to that kind of talk. That doesn’t mean you have to go to the lowest common denominator, I think there is a way we can lift everyone.”

SanDisk is very active in increasing women’s participation in science and technology. “SanDisk is a huge community supporter. They provide a lot of funding to nonprofits including women in stem. We sponsor a lot of organizations very early on to encourage girls in science, technology and engineering. We have been working to create a pipeline into technology from that young age and there is tremendous focus on making sure that we have development opportunities for women in the company as well as in the industry.”

It’s time to get involved with SanDisk

Nithya is calling for ideas from the community about SanDisk’s engagement with Open Source so go on and start talking to SanDisk.

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