EMC: Flash could spell doom for Fibre Channel

With prices falling, Flash, SATA combination could replace Fibre Channel drives

EMC executives believe that Fibre Channel storage could be a thing of the past in just a few years as enterprises increase adoption of flash memory for I/O-intensive applications, while storing less-frequently used data on inexpensive SATA drives.

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In 2008, storage vendors like EMC were saying that flash was about 20 times more expensive than Fibre Channel drives on a per-gigabyte basis, but worth the price for some applications because of superior data access speeds and lower power use.

But prices are dropping quickly as the storage industry places more research funding into building solid-state drives (SSD) capable of standing up to enterprise workloads. Last year the price of enterprise flash was about 10 times that of Fibre Channel drives, and now it's getting down near the 7-times range and the gap is expected to continue to narrow, EMC storage executives said in an interview at the company's Massachusetts headquarters.

Once flash achieves price parity "we think that's the end of Fibre Channel drives because you'll have price points that are very attractive" for flash and SATA, said Frank Hauck, an executive vice president who's in charge of EMC's storage division. "You won't need a Fibre Channel drive."

The storage industry is probably still two or three years away from that happening, EMC executives said. EMC is investing in several start-ups in the flash market to spur innovation -- progress on a few fronts will be needed for flash to reach its potential in the enterprise, they said.

One goal is to improve management of consumer-grade, multi-level cell flash chips, which are less expensive than the single-cell chips used today for enterprise products. More advanced wear leveling and error correction can improve the viability of the less expensive consumer flash.

Another key goal is to further automate the movement of data between flash and less-expensive tiers of storage. Last year, EMC addressed criticism that its storage arrays force administrators to manually move data from tier to tier by introducing software called FAST, or Fully Automated Storage Tiering.

But the first version of the product didn't go far enough, acknowledged Richard Napolitano, president of EMC's Unified Storage Division.

"There's a new [version of FAST] coming out soon which will be far superior in every way you can imagine," Napolitano said. "The first version does it simplistically and doesn't have the granularity we really wanted. We're going to solve all those problems very quickly."

Usage of SSD will accelerate once administrators don't have to manually move data from flash to hard disk drives, he said. Even today, many of EMC's enterprise and mid-tier customers are buying storage arrays with flash. Typically, a customer deployment contains about 80% hard disk drives and 20% SSD, according to EMC.

NetApp CEO Tom Georgens was recently quoted in The Register as saying that automated tiering of data across different types of storage drives is a dying concept, in contradiction with the views of vendors including EMC, 3Par, Dell and Compellent.

But Georgens went on to say that frequently accessed data will be stored on flash, while the rest will reside on inexpensive SATA drives – a view that isn't all that different from what EMC is proposing.

"I actually think we're saying the same thing," Napolitano said. "He [Georgens] was just being dramatic, to tell you the truth."

Even if Fibre Channel goes away, Napolitano said he believes future data centers will still embrace multiple tiers of storage and need automation to manage movement of data across the tiers.

Tiers could include cloud storage services, EMC's Data Domain deduplication devices, and various boxes with specific functions, such as compression of data.

"Our real vision is that you have many more tiers," Napolitano said. "You have a compressed tier. You have a de-duped tier. You have a spun-down tier."

The spun-down tier would consist of disk drives that power off when not in use; therefore using no power – just like tape. Although EMC sells tape devices through third-party agreements, the company would rather see tape storage go by the wayside. Data Domain's de-dupe products are helping reduce use of tape, the company executives said.

"Our focus is to put that out of its misery, to go after the tape business," Hauck said.

Still, Napolitano acknowledged that completely displacing a long-used technology such as tape is not easy. People have been declaring the mainframe dead for many years, he noted. "Those things have a huge tail on them," he said.

Besides flash, one of EMC's main concerns is adapting storage systems to the needs of virtualized servers. The consolidation of multiple virtual servers onto fewer physical machines has placed new strains on data storage, while the ability to move VMs from one physical box to another introduces the problem of making sure storage associated with an application moves as well.

"The transition to virtualized is causing many things to be re-architected," Napolitano said. "We love that. We love that because hard problems are where we can make money and [virtualization] is causing problems."

EMC owns VMware, maker of the most popular x86 hypervisor. But VMware is operated as a separate company, to an extent, and is free to partner with EMC's rivals in the storage business just as EMC partners with Microsoft to ensure that its storage meets the needs of Microsoft's virtualization technology.

"They're a separate company in that regard," Napolitano said. "They work with NetApp. In the same way we go to Microsoft and work with Hyper-V, and they hate that."

"We try to be the partner of choice," Hauck added. "We want their stuff to work best on our stuff, and we have to fight for that."

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