IBM updates all-flash storage array to complement X6 servers

The FlashSystem 840, building on last year's 820, will fit a petabyte of storage in a rack with low latency

As IBM accelerates its sixth-generation X Series servers with memory-channel flash storage, it's also offering to boost data-center performance with a new all-flash SAN array.

The company announced the FlashSystem 840 array on Thursday alongside the x6 platform, its latest x86 server family for mission-critical enterprise use. The storage box is a followup to the FlashSystem 820, which was introduced last April and represented the debut of technology that IBM bought with Texas Memory Systems in 2012. In addition to making that acquisition, the company announced last April it would invest $1 billion in flash research and development.

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IBM is aiming x6 servers at big-data analytics tasks and cloud-based services, as well as standard data-center purposes. All those applications have to tap into large and fast-growing collections of data, and IBM is making big investments in flash so enterprises can quickly get that data to the high-powered x86 chips that will process it. In x6 servers themselves, customers will be able to deploy flash storage in DIMMs like those normally used for memory, taking advantage of the memory channel's super-fast connection to the CPU.

Each FlashSystem 840 is twice the size of an 820, measuring 2 standard rack units high, and has twice the maximum capacity, at 48TB fully loaded. It carries forward the earlier platform's high performance, with latency of 90 microseconds for writing data and 135 microseconds for reading. A fully configured system can perform 1.1 million IOPS (in/out operations per second).

That means the FlashSystem 840 can be used for analyzing and processing 40,000 credit-card transactions per second, according to Michael Kuhn, vice president and business line executive for IBM Flash Systems. The platform can also help enterprises and cloud service providers support financial trading and analysis, software as a service and health care. In the medical field, this type of storage can help to power quick analysis of data such as how different types of people respond to treatments, which in turn can be used to deliver real-time prescriptions and advice in doctors' offices, he said.

Customers that fill an entire data-center rack with FlashSystem 840 units will have a petabyte of storage in that rack alone and the systems can be expanded to multiple racks.

The company is also introducing the FlashSystem Enterprise Performance Solution, a bundle of the 840 with IBM System Storage SAN Volume Controller technology. This adds popular enterprise capabilities such as compression, thin provisioning, storage virtualization and snapshots to the 840.

All-flash arrays are growing beyond specialized products geared toward all-out performance and enterprise-class features are part of the evolution, said IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz. For example, the FlashSystem 840 includes redundancy and the ability to hot-swap components in and out, he said.

"These are the types of things that are truly necessary to help move the whole market from just being relatively small and a niche into more mainstream types of applications," Janukowicz said.

Meanwhile, the ranks of vendors pushing purpose-built, all-flash storage has expanded from startups to established vendors such as IBM and EMC, which last year began shipping its Xtremio flash arrays, he said.

IBM's introduction of both the new flash SAN array and memory-channel flash shows how solid-state storage is emerging in multiple forms for different needs, much as spinning hard drives have come in various forms, said Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Mark Peters.

The company is finally bringing its massive size to bear in flash with serious development efforts and market focus, Peters said.

"The IBM storage division is a lot more assertive and directed than IBM has been a few years ago, where really they thought that just stamping 'IBM' on it was enough," Peters said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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