Gentlemen, Start Your SSD Storage Engines
2008 will be the "tipping point" year for flash as it graduates from consumer to enterprise IT.eWEEK's Jeff Burt reported June 4 that Sun Microsystems has entered the race to see which Tier 1 storage system company can come up with the first solid-state disk-based storage system that will actually work, and work well, in production situations.
Solid-state flash drives use enterprise-class flash memory to store and retrieve data, enabling read/write response times that are about 30 times faster than the current highest-quality hard disk drives. Because they have no moving parts, SSDs require much less power to run, and mechanical breakdowns are out of the picture.
Sun Senior Vice President for Systems John Fowler told eWEEK that Sun will begin to deliver 2.5-inch flash drives and SSD-based products by the second half of 2008, with 3.5-inch drives coming after that.
EMC CEO Joe Tucci told media members and analysts at EMC World in May that "solid-state disk storage is the way of the future; eventually everything will move to solid state as the technology evolves."
EMC announced in January that it would issue such a storage system by March 19, and in fact, the company has been shipping Symmetrix DMX-4 arrays with optional SSDs since then. Technically, EMC has won the SSD array "race," so to speak, although an argument can be made that the Symmetrix DMX-4 arrays are not dedicated SSD machines. Customers can choose whether to have the SSDs installed in place of the regular disk drives -- and they are much more expensive.
So now Sun and Hitachi Data Systems are in the chase, a step behind EMC. Their dedicated SSD storage system products are expected to be ready in the second half of this year.
Apple, Samsung, Dell, and Lenovo are using flash now to replace disk drives in laptop PCs. In particular, the Macintosh Air has been a hot seller.
There has been no word yet from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, or NetApp on SSDs for arrays, but presumably those companies will be on it soon; these big trends move fast.
A startup called Pliant Technology, which launched in February, became the first enterprise vendor to focus its complete attention on producing data storage systems that use solid-state flash memory instead of conventional disk drives.
CEO Amyl Ahola told eWEEK at the time that Pliant is using the same kind of NAND flash that other companies use, except that "we've just developed a very unique proprietary controller that utilizes the flash in ways never known before."
Intel, which is getting very busy making flash chips, told eWEEK that it has come up with its own method for utilizing flash chips more effectively, so they are more stable and don't burn out as quickly as they once did.
"It used to be that NAND flash memory was just used to run the BIOS in computers and to store data in thumb drives," Intel NAND Products Group Product Line Manager Don Larson told eWEEK.
"Intel has a great software feature called wear-leveling," Larson said. "This allows the entire surface of the NAND flash drive to be scanned and the data distributed throughout, so no 'hot' or 'cold' spots ever develop that could cause the drive to wear out prematurely.
"This answers a lot of the old questions about the longevity of NAND flash drives."
This is what all the Tier 1 companies will be doing: using the same kind of NAND flash-invented by both Samsung and Toshiba about 20 years ago-and adding their own secret sauce to make it sing.
This is big, disruptive news in not only the storage world, but in the server and data center worlds. Companies have been investing in disk- and tape-based systems for more than two decades, and for the basic configuration to change is a drastic move. But the high-performance and green IT attributes of flash are hard to pass up, and recent density advancements in flash chip development also have enabled all this to happen.
The only major issue is the overall availability of industrial-strength flash chips. iPods, BlackBerrys and cell phones have been using most of the supply during the last five years, but that demand has slowed. Currently, the market is over-supplied, but that may not last very long if the storage industry makes this changeover during the next couple of years. Editor's note: This story was updated to include corrected information about EMC's SSD arrays.