The New Flash Technologies Speeding up Data Centers

The New Flash Technologies Speeding up Data Centers

September 5

A few months ago, I wrote an article about SSD adoption as it pertains to the consumer market. We’ve continued to see SSDs soar in popularity over the past few years to the point where they make up about half the drives we sell across general purpose PCs, workstations, and servers at Puget Systems.

SSD technology is changing quickly. Since I wrote that article we’ve seen M.2 crash the scene. M.2 is a new form of connectivity that allows an SSD to connect directly to the PCI-E bus rather than going through the slower SATA controller. Why does that matter? Throughput for SSDs connected to SATA top out around 600BM/s while M.2 drives can theoretically reach speeds as high as 2GB/s.

M.2 Samsung SSD connected to PCI-E adapter

M.2 Samsung SSD connected to PCI-E adapter

Some people use the terms SSD and flash interchangeably, and that’s usually not a big deal. But to be clear, when I’m talking about an SSD, I’m talking about the drive itself, while flash generally refers to the memory chips that comprise the SSD.

While SSDs have continued to encroach upon the turf typically inhabited by mechanical drives, we’re witnessing new businesses, products, and markets emerge around flash technology, and that’s what I’d like to look at today. Specifically:

  • What new developments are being driven by flash technology?
  • Who are the main players?
  • What can we expect to see in the future?

Flash Enters the Data Center

Flash drives have long been used to provide a significant decrease to server boot times, which is a critical metric of any data center. Servers crash and the faster they can be brought back into service, the better it is for the data center and customers. It’s always wise to reduce downtime however you can. Flash drives also use less power and run cooler which are two major considerations for data centers.

For several years now, Amazon, Dropbox, and Facebook have been replacing mechanical drives with flash drives due to their performance, power-sipping, and cool running nature. And because SSDs are not comprised of any moving parts, they have proven to be more reliable than mechanical drives.

Dropbox is a good example of a company using flash to leverage the performance of their software. Many Dropbox customers view their Dropbox folders as they do any local folder, even when files in that folder reside in the cloud. Moving a file off an SSD over a fast network blurs the line between your local and cloud-based storage.

PernixData is an example of a company that uses local SSD drives for cache to accelerate hypervisors. A number of companies have used SSDs in read intensive applications such as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), but what we are seeing is that SSDs are becoming the standard instead of a differentiator among various products.

An array made entirely of 70TB worth of flash drives from Violin Memory

An array made entirely of 70TB worth of flash drives from Violin Memory

Spinning disks are the highest-failure item in the data center because they are mechanical. But SSDs still carry a much higher cost per GB and don’t solve every performance issue. SSDs are unlikely to boost the performance of an oversaturated SAN array or undersized disk controller. But if you can pinpoint your bottleneck to the speed of the drive, an SSD can often improve the performance of your software application without any expensive code optimization or additional hardware outside the cost of the SSD.

The Players

EMC recently bought XtremIO and promises blazing performance for your databases, virtual servers, and VDI infrastructure. EMC understands that speeding up the delivery of its products helps to differentiate itself from the lower cost alternatives.

SolidFire is an enterprise storage startup that leverages an all flash environment among an array of products ranging from OpenStack to VMWare hosting. Both EMC and SolidFire have taken established products and injected them with a massive dose of performance.

Both IBM and SanDisk are delivering products that take the DDR3 data channel, load it full of flash storage, and provide sub 7 microsecond latency. Latency sensitive applications benefit the most from this technology, including high-frequency trading and in-memory databases.

As for players who actually create the flash storage, the list is quite small. They include the usual list of suspects such as Intel, Samsung, Kingston, and Seagate. Enterprise SSDs can cost two to three times the amount of similar consumer drives, but are manufactured to withstand heavy write activity in scenarios typical of a data center. Intel recently released the Intel SSD Pro 2500 series drives in both 2.5-inch and M.2 form factors that look to be very popular.

The Future

SSDs are one technology that caught on with consumers before moving to the data center. But as capacities climb and prices drop, it’s not difficult to imagine every data center moving a good portion of their storage and application hosting to flash technology.

M.2 has a ways to go before it becomes a mainstream feature on motherboards, but I can see a day where server boards include enough PCI-E lanes to manage multiple M.2 SSDs. This technology is too new to predict if consumers are interested in storage that’s potentially three times faster than today’s SSDs. In theory it sounds great, but if your games or application don’t feel any faster, it may not provide a big enough incentive over today’s SSDs.

A lot of businesses got their start by recognizing a pain point and creating a solution to alleviate it. I think that’s what we’re seeing today with a number of startups releasing flash-based solutions. They are looking for the bottlenecks in a company’s data stream, and using flash products and services to alleviate it.

No matter what happens, this is a topic to revisit given the pace of change in the market.

Top photo credit: Nrbelex via Wikimedia