EMC Breaks New Ground with SSDs in Storage Arrays

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-01-15

EMC Breaks New Ground with SSDs in Storage Arrays

EMC surprised the data storage industry with a move Jan. 14 that wasn't expected until perhaps the second half of this year.

The company, based in Hopkinton, Mass., claimed to be the first enterprise storage vendor to integrate flash-based solid state drives into its core product portfolio. EMC's new 73GB and 146GB SSDs will become available as an option later this quarter in EMC's high-end Symmetrix DMX-4 systems, which are designed for high-performance systems and applications, such as financial institutions and scientific projects.

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 irrelevant.

EMC's flash drives are supplied by STEC Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif. These will serve as a new solid-state storage tier, or Tier 0, for the Symmetrix DMX-4 arrays. EMC also said it will offer virtual provisioning (also known as thin provisioning) for Symmetrix DMX-3 and 4, as well as 1TB SATA II disk drives for Tier 3 storage.

General availability of these new hardware and software products is set for March 19, EMC Senior Director of Storage Product Marketing Bob Wambach told eWEEK.

Thin provisioning is a software feature that allows administrators to allocate just enough storage needed for specific applications, saving on unused capacity and wear and tear on drives.

"We've been working on this for about three years, and we're ready to go with it now," Wambach said. "We chose a single-cell type of flash drive that has been optimized for high-end enterprise use that is proficient in performance, rather than in density."

Wambach said that "you really cannot rely on what's [already] out there in the market to build your systems. You need to be engaged in future technologies. This is a great example for EMC to basically seize an opportunity to begin to change the market before anyone else thought it was going to happen."

Symmetrix was the logical place for EMC to start its SSD product strategy, Wambach said, "because that's where the customers with the ultra-fast performance tiers tend to be -- large enterprises, and in areas such as financial securities trading, currency exchange, arbitrage and hedging -- wherever there are a lot of electronic decisions being made. These applications are typically run on Symmetrix anyway.  That's the sweet spot."

The Symmetrix DMX-4 flash drives -- which start at about $250,000 and run into the millions of dollars for the largest systems -- use single-layer cell flash technology combined with sophisticated controllers to achieve fast read/write performance, high reliability and data integrity, Wambach said, adding that they have been tested and qualified to withstand the intense workloads of high-end enterprise storage applications.

SSDs certainly have many good attributes -- many analysts believe they represent the future of IT -- but they still have some problems. For example, at this time they cost about 30 times the price of a disk per megabyte of information stored. It is also unproven exactly how long they can last under high I/O conditions in a day-after-day deployment.

EMC didn't offer exact pricing information on the new SSD-loaded DMX-4s, other than admitting that they were definitely more expensive.

"The companies that will be interested in these aren't looking at price; they're looking at performance," Wambach said.

Effect on Storage Market

So, what does the Jan. 14 announcement mean to the storage market in general? Plenty.

"Well, I think we all knew something was going to happen soon [with regard to flash moving into storage arrays], but I don't think anybody saw this coming [in January]," Mark Peters, storage analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, told eWEEK. "It's great to see EMC doing it, too -- they're not always the first out of the gate on these things."

Flash drives can store a terabyte of data using 38 percent less energy than traditional Fibre Channel disk drives, Pund-IT analyst Charles King and Mesabi Group principal David Hill wrote Jan. 14 in a special report.

"Since it would take about 30 15,000-RPM Fibre Channel disk drives to deliver the same performance as a single flash drive, this translates into a dramatic 98 percent reduction in power consumption to achieve similar transaction-per-second performance," Hill and King wrote.

"With flash drive technology in a Symmetrix DMX-4 storage system, a credit card provider could clear up to six transactions in the time it once took to process a single transaction," they wrote.

"Overall, EMC's efforts could significantly alter the dynamics of the flash SSD market, where stand-alone flash storage systems have been available only from smaller vendors -- notably Solid Data and Texas Memory Systems."

Roberto Basilio, senior director of enterprise storage product management at competing Hitachi Data Systems, told eWEEK that "EMC is primarily playing catch up with this announcement. Hitachi was the first tier one storage vendor to support thin provisioning when we launched the USP V in May of last year.

Basilio added: "As far as the flash drives, we're not seeing very many requests from customers to support this technology at the moment. We believe EMC is really serving the needs of the few here."

Basilio and HDS Chief Scientist Claus Mikkelsen both said they thought the market for high-end flash SSDs was far less than 1,000 companies worldwide.

"It not even a niche -- it's just a minute part of the market," Mikkelsen said. "Anyway, we've been there and done that. SSDs certainly have improved a great deal from the 1990s -- back then they were volatile, now they are non-volatile -- and give EMC credit for moving ahead. But when potential customers find out the high prices and the other limitations [of flash] become apparent, things will cool off."

Tom Coughlin of San Jose, Calif.-based Coughlin Associates, a longtime flash storage expert who puts on the Storage Visions conferences several times per year, told eWEEK that "this isn't really that new -- having flash in enterprise storage systems. [Solid-state] DRAM has been used as part of the enterprise storage hierarchy for quite a while."

In fact, Xiotech, of Eden Prairie, Minn., has been offering DRAM-based SSDs for over a year as part of its Magnitude 3D virtual storage cluster.

"I see this as a reflection of flash moving into the space formerly occupied by DRAM. The price will come down quite a bit, although it's still expensive," Coughlin said.

Peters of ESG said that as time goes on "we'll see more and more stuff [in data centers] that doesn't spin. I think EMC is creating a space between themselves and their competitors. It'll be interesting to see how they catch up to this."

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