Enterprise flash arrays pack in more storage with denser media

Sub-20nm flash can hold more data in the same space, but challenges loom for next generations

A new generation of faster, cheaper flash storage is hitting the enterprise market and will be in the spotlight this week at the Flash Memory Summit conference.

At least three makers of all-flash storage arrays plan to show off products based on the most dense NAND flash components yet, with cells smaller than 20 nanometers across. These will fit more data into the same space, reducing power consumption and per-gigabyte cost. The catch: Flash gets slower and more error-prone when it gets that dense, so the new products required even more advanced software to make up for this, the vendors say.

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Because reliably writing data to flash gets harder as the cells get smaller, conventional flash technology may be nearing the end of the road. Cells less than 10nm across may be too small for the size of the electrons needed to charge them, said Jim Bagley, an analyst at Storage Strategies Now. As a result, major flash manufacturers may go straight to alternatives like vertical NAND, which stacks multiple cell layers on top of each other, he said.

Still, the new flash products on show at the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, California, should offer higher performance along with cost, energy and space savings. Storage arrays populated entirely with flash are starting to compete on cost with the most expensive HDD (hard disk drive) systems with 15,000rpm drives, analysts say.

"We are seeing some very aggressive cost and price declines," said Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth. And when speed is of the essence, flash systems already win out.

"These are by far the best means of achieving higher performance and lower latency," Unsworth said. "You cannot get that, no matter what configuration, with a hard-drive-only approach."

Skyera, Violin Memory and Nimbus Data Systems each are introducing all-flash enterprise storage arrays that they say make flash more price-competitive with high-speed HDD (hard disk drive) systems while easily beating them on performance. All the new products are built around MLC (multilevel cell) flash, the least expensive commonly found form of NAND, which can store more than one bit on each cell.

Skyera says its technology for making consumer-grade flash do serious work is now advanced enough for general enterprises. At the conference, Skyera is demonstrating its skyEagle array, which is due to ship in the first half of next year.

The skyEagle will have more than 10 times the capacity of the skyHawk array that was introduced last year and will cost one-third less per gigabyte, according to Tony Barbagallo, vice president of marketing. It will be made with 16-nanometer flash, compared with 20nm in the skyHawk. The skyEagle, a 1U rack unit, will have a capacity of 500TB, or 2.5PB after compression and deduplication.

The company has also added more enterprise features, including Fibre Channel interfaces and redundancy for high availability. It's the type of complete system that Skyera envisioned when it was formed in 2010, Barbagallo said. The skyHawk was a similar product that the company was able to bring out quickly for use in certain settings, including military applications. It will remain available.

The skyEagle's greater density, combined with general cost declines from the evolution of flash, allowed Skyera to drop the list price for the skyEagle to $1.99 per gigabyte. Counting compression and deduplication, it will cost just $0.49 per gigabyte, Barbagallo said.

To make MLC flash resilient enough for enterprises, Skyera applies its own controller and other technologies. The new, more dense media made the company go even further, Barbagallo said. Skyera is now working with flash media vendors to optimize their products for the skyEagle, Barbagallo said. "What we could get away with in 20-nanometer land, we can't get away with in 16-nanometer land," he said.

Violin Memory is introducing the Violin 6264 Flash Memory Array, which has twice the capacity of its current 6232 array in the same 3U form factor. Power consumption per gigabyte is half what it was in the 6232, said Narayan Venkat, vice president of product management.

Because the 6264 array has more capacity in the same size box, it reaches a rough price parity with fast HDD platforms, even before compression or deduplication, Venkat said. The 6232, though faster than those drives, costs about one-and-a-half times to two times as much per gigabyte as HDDs.

Growing cost competitiveness has helped Violin to expand its market, Venkat said. Its traditional customers have been enterprises that need high speed for databases and online transaction processing, but uses have expanded to include applications such as Microsoft SharePoint and SAP, he said. The 6264 array, which has begun shipping to customers, is priced starting at about $750,000.

Also on Tuesday, Violin is introducing Symphony, its first software platform for monitoring and managing all the Violin gear in an enterprise from the same screen. Symphony will let administrators do predictive health checks and set alerts to keep tabs on the condition of Violin flash storage, Venkat said. Because it uses a Web-based interface, it will work on smartphones and tablets for remote management. Each manager will be able to set up a unique view of the Symphony interface so that application, storage and database administrators each can see the most relevant information for their roles.

Nimbus is introducing its fourth-generation Gemini flash arrays, which will also be made with sub-20nm flash. The denser media can replace hybrid systems that use a small amount of flash along with HDDs.

Though designed for higher speed with low cost, hybrid arrays deliver "lumpy" performance because they aren't good at predicting what data will be most in demand and putting it in flash, said founder and CEO Thomas Isakovich. That's especially a problem with server and desktop virtualization because they cause increasingly random workflows, he said.

With its new systems, the Gemini F400 and Gemini F600, Nimbus expects to reach midsized enterprises along with large organizations, Isakovich said. The F400, designed for midsized customers, uses 16-Gigabit Fibre Channel and 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and will sell for less than $60,000 with 3TB of capacity installed. The higher-end F600 will have InfiniBand and 40-Gigabit connections and cost less than $80,000 with 3TB. The F600 is designed for customers who need ultra low latency, such as electronic trading companies.

Each of the Nimbus devices can be fitted out with as much as 48TB of capacity in a 2U system, and with compression and deduplication, that can equal as much as 385TB of usable storage, Isakovich 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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