How flash is changing storage …

And five vendors pushing the technology into wares for the enterprise

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Flash-based solid-state memory quickly is becoming part of the enterprise's storage arsenal, and for good reason. Flash-based approaches provide better performance and consume less energy than systems relying on traditional rotating disk drives. You now can find solid-state memory embedded in servers, storage arrays and even in a newfangled disaster-recovery device. Here are five innovators.

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Axxana: Black boxes for stored data

This Israeli start-up has developed a unique approach to disaster recovery - one possible only because of flash memory, company founders say. Modeled on the concept of airplane black boxes, Axxana's 400-pound Phoenix is designed to survive natural disasters and terrorist attacks - basically anything short of a nuclear bomb. In addition, the Phoenix can transmit data wirelessly should the box be irretrievable after a disaster. (For such innovation, Axxana earns recognition as a start-up to watch for 2009.)

Standard rotating disk drives aren't robust enough for this type of application. "We didn't want to use mechanical devices that are sensitive to vibrations and shock," says CTO Alex Winokur. "If there is a sudden shock, the head can scratch the surface."

Axxana ruled out using dynamic random access memory (DRAM) because of the risk of losing data. Unlike flash, DRAM requires backup batteries to prevent data loss should the power go out.

The engineering team chose flash also because of its low power consumption. Axxana was careful not to generate too much heat inside the box. "It's a huge technical and mechanical problem to solve, really - how to isolate the box from the outside and dissipate enough heat from inside," Winokur says.

Axxana uses STEC flash drives, chosen for their resiliency, speed and 3.5-inch form factor. The drive capacity runs at 73GB to 300GB. That may not sound like much, but Phoenix's innovative design doesn't require much storage. The box is used in combination with asynchronous mirroring, which can replicate data to other sites at any distance. Some bits of data are lost during this process, and only those bits of data are stored on the Axxana system.

In beta now, Phoenix will be available at the end of this quarter, the company says. Target customers are in the financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, retail and government industries.

Axxana has not disclosed pricing, but says the cost will be in the six-figure range.

EMC: Priming the flash market

EMC didn't invent flash memory, but its decision to add flash-based disks to its flagship Symmetrix arrays a year ago sent a clear signal to the industry: Flash is ready for the enterprise. (EMC’s Barry Burke, a storage executive, explains why in this podcast.) 

"It got people to think about solid-state disks (SSD) and get comfortable with them in the enterprise environment," says Burton Group analyst Gene Ruth. "It was a signal that the technology is viable and credible." (View a slide show of enterprise flash drives and nine other technologies for taking IT to the next level.)

One EMC flash buyer is Michigan's state government, which has 1TB of flash as part of a Symmetrix DMX-4 array. The state has a latency problem with the retrieval of PDF files, largely court documents, within its EMC Documentum content management system, says Rick Hoffman, storage administrator for the state. "Online transaction systems are so intense that we're looking at ways to speed up the transactional processing, as well as decrease the batch [processing] times," he says.

EMC's approach causes little disruption because it replaces some of the hard disks in a Symmetrix array with SSDs, Ruth notes. EMC calls this "tier zero," a new tier of storage for applications that require extremely fast data retrieval.

Placing SSDs in existing arrays also means being able to manage them along with the rest of the disks within the array, adds Andrew Reichman, a Forrester Research analyst. EMC nevertheless should develop a way to move data automatically among different tiers based on usage patterns, so that the most frequently used data is on SSD and less frequently used data is moved to less expensive disk, he says.

As it stands now, storage administrators have to be quite knowledgeable about which volumes belong on tier zero and move data to each tier manually. A better tactic would be to move data automatically around the different tiers as performance needs change, Ruth says. This is an approach Sun has taken with its new Amber Road storage appliances, which use the Solaris ZFS file system to recognize different I/O patterns and move data around automatically to make the best use of each tier.

Symmetrix systems generally start at $200,000 for about 10TB. Customers adding flash to the array must buy at least four 73GB drives. On a per-gigabyte basis, flash is about 20 times more expensive than traditional drives, says Bob Wambach, EMC storage marketing director. (Compare Storage Arrays.)

Fusion-io: Flash in the SAN

Fusion-io brought an inexpensive yet effective approach to the flash-storage market in late 2007 when it introduced the ioDrive - a PCI Express (PCIe) card loaded with flash memory that is inserted directly into servers. At the time, Fusion-io boasted that the ioDrive, at a starting price of just less than $3,000, delivers 100,000 I/O operations per second, equivalent to the IOPS of about 1,000 typical disk drives aggregated in a storage-area network (SAN).

The ioDrive has a downside, however: The flash memory is limited to the server in which the PCIe card is inserted.

Fusion-io is eliminating that problem with a product called the ioSAN, which takes the vendor's basic PCIe card and adds two network-interface ports that transport data using InfiniBand or 10 Gigabit Ethernet. With just one Fusion-io card, flash memory can be made available to all servers in the network. Alternatively, storage managers can aggregrate multiple ioSANs into what appears as one logical-unit number. Using flash minimizes the cost of cables and management software, the company says.

"Fusion-io's approach is certainly novel," says IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz. By putting flash closer to the servers, it eliminates system bottlenecks and vastly improves performance, he adds. (Last summer Fusion-io got a nod as a data storage company to watch.)

IoSAN is in beta tests at a few large, unnamed deployments and probably won't be available until the second half of 2009, the company says.

IoDrive customers are not necessarily targets for the ioSAN. For example, San Francisco-based uses six ioDrives for a large ERP database because it realized that upgrading its current SAN would be expensive and provide only modest performance improvements. The ioDrives provide "a pretty amazing performance difference," says CTO Geoffrey Smalling.

Smalling is satisfied with the ioDrive, however, and probably won't need to upgrade to the ioSAN, he says: "We've got enough storage."

Spansion: From cell phones to servers

This company is a newcomer to the enterprise IT space, but not to flash. It has made its name over many years embedding flash memory in cell phones, automobiles and consumer electronics. Now Spansion is developing EcoRAM flash memory, which it intends to embed in servers to speed such read-intensive applications as Internet search. "It's really looking for some new way to go beyond traditional DRAM," IDC's Janukowicz says.

While the other companies highlighted in this story rely on NAND flash memory, Spansion uses NOR flash. NOR doesn't offer anything special in terms of write speeds, but is approximately 100 times faster than NAND when it comes to reads, says Jan Silverman, vice president of Spansion's storage-server business unit.

A server might have 100GB of conventional disk and 1GB of DRAM for main memory, Silverman says. When data is requested, the CPU searches main memory; if it isn't there, the CPU looks for it on disk. It then transfers the data to main memory for the requesting application's use, he says. EcoRAM replaces the conventional disk with flash, which is treated as main memory readily available at all times.

NOR flash and DRAM are about the same speed for reads, but EcoRAM has the advantage of being able to put a much larger data set onto main memory, Silverman says. A standard x86 server can hold as much as half a terabyte of EcoRAM flash. Some DRAM is still necessary to serve up data to the operating system and application, but all random searches would take advantage of the server's flash memory.

Spansion expects server vendors to start shipping EcoRAM-enabled systems this quarter. They will cost more than traditional servers, but Spansion predicts its technology will let customers replace four traditional DRAM-based servers with one flash-based server and cut total costs by as much as 60%.

IDC's Janukowicz sees no readily apparent downsides to Spansion's approach, but he cautions storage managers to test the technology carefully before using it with mission-critical applications. "It's more of an unproven technology," he says. "We certainly have years of history with something like DRAM."

Texas Memory Systems: Bringing the big guns

Texas Memory has developed what appears to be the most powerful enterprise flash-storage system yet, breaking the 1 million IOPS barrier with the RamSan-5000.

Flash isn't as fast as Texas Memory's DRAM-based SSDs, but aggregating DRAM is cost-prohibitive, IDC's Janukowicz says. "It's been able to increase the storage capacity while offering very good performance," he says. "The raw performance will not be as good as it is with DRAM, but you're getting more density for the same price."

Participate in a poll: Which flash-based storage product has the most promise for your enterprise?

The RamSan-5000 is ideal for critical enterprise, research and government applications, such as large online transaction processing systems or data warehouses, video on demand, data rendering, geospatial analysis, seismic processing and data acquisition, the company says. One unnamed U.S. customer already is using the RamSan-5000, Texas Memory says.

A 1 million IOPS-capable RamSan-5000 with 20TB of RAID-protected flash memory costs roughly $1.5 million, Texas Memory says. It combines 10 RamSan-500 arrays, each of which delivers 100,000 IOPS.

Wiland Direct, a database firm outside Denver that analyzes data for the catalog industry, has been using a RamSan-500 since last September to run a MySQL database that handles 10 to 15 million transactions a day.

"When processing such huge transaction volumes," says Wiland CTO Phil Tobias, "turnaround time is crucial."

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