Sun Promises SSDs for Enterprises

Sun is building its storage strategy around solid state disks.

BOSTON-As John Fowler sees it, the future of enterprise data storage and computing lies in solid state disks.

Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Sun Microsystems, and other company executives on June 4 are announcing that OEMs will integrate SSDs (solid state disks) with the bulk of its hardware and software offerings, and will also build services around helping customers embrace and deploy the Flash technology.

Sun later this year will roll out its own SSDs designed to give users jumps in application performance and scalability while cutting energy consumption and costs.

In a meeting here with several analysts and reporters June 3, Fowler said that given the demands being placed on server and storage systems by new technologies such as faster processors, it's only a matter of time before businesses start turning to SSDs. For Fowler, it's more a question of "when" than "if."

"Flash today is not about bulk storage ... but it's about performance," Fowler said. "The question for us is going to be adoption rate ... because people's adoption rates of storage is really variable."

He expects the adoption to begin in earnest later this year, starting mostly with businesses running high-performance computing environments and I/O-intensive applications. Soon after that, more mainstream enterprises will grab hold of SSDs.

When that happens, Sun wants to be there, Fowler said. The company 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.

The company also already is designing servers in-house that use SSDs, and will continue that trend toward enabling Flash technology of its products over the next few years.

Already the company is shipping Solaris ZFS software-Sun's file system for its operating system-optimized for use with SSDs through the Open Storage community. The Flash disks also will be optimized for the MySQL database and other applications, and by integrating ZFS into its Open Storage systems, Sun is ahead of the competition, Fowler said.

Sun's announcement comes at a time when many storage players are promising Flash drive-enabled products-which traditionally have been found in consumer devices-for the enterprise space. Storage giant EMC announced in January that it would begin shipping SSDs using Flash memory as an alternative to traditional disk drives in some of its Symmetrix storage arrays. EMC officials at their EMC World show in May reiterated their belief that SSDs will become key enterprise products and that EMC will play an important role in driving down costs for the technology.

For its part, Intel in December 2007 rolled out a new thumbnail-sized solid state storage drive that officials say will serve as a key component for next-generation mobile, digital entertainment and embedded applications in numerous portable electronic devices.

Fowler said that over the next few years, SSD products will pour into the market, and that demand for them will be high. He predicted that by 2010, SSDs will represent the largest change in storage price-performance, and that they will have a larger impact on servers and data center efficiency than virtualization.

He also predicted the rapid adoption of SSDs by businesses running intensive I/O workloads by the end of the year, and that much of today's proprietary storage hardware will be displaced by SSD-enabled systems within three years.

It only makes sense, Fowler said. Flash-based SSDs offer greater performance and scalability, better efficiency and consistent reliability than current hard disk drives, particularly given that there are no moving parts in the SSDs.

Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, said after the meeting with Fowler that the Sun executive was being optimistic in some of his predictions. It's possible all this will occur, Haff said, "but these things don't happen overnight, particularly in storage, where enterprises are very conservative."

By comparison, he said that before the dot-com bust, EMC made a fortune selling essentially outdated technology to very conservative enterprises, particularly in its Symmetrix products. After the downturn, businesses started to more aggressively look at what they were buying, giving rise to such companies as NetApp, which offered alternatives to EMC and other established storage players.

Still, Sun has some interesting ideas, he said, such as needing a general-purpose server specifically configured for storage tasks, rather than using a specific storage system. However, the risk is that Sun is putting a lot of effort and money behind the SSD strategy, which could backfire if no one buys the products.

Fowler said the trend in computing will convince businesses to make the move to Flash-based SSDs. Traditional hard disk drives have been a drag on applications that want to take advantage of the speed offered by the newest processors, he said.