Enterprises Warming Up to MLC Flash

Arthur Cole

Solid-state drive (SSD) technology in enterprise settings has always been something of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, high-performance environments need the high-throughput and fast access that SSDs provide, but it comes at a high cost premium.

This is particularly true of single-level cell (SLC) technology, which provides more superior reliability and wear duration than the more consumer-friendly multi-level cell (MLC) variety but is more expensive and provides less capacity.

But that may be changing as new generations of MLC drives challenge the notion that cheaper is necessarily less effective.

IBM took a major step forward in MLC design this week with its selection of STEC's ZeusIOPs device for the DS8800, DS8700 and lower-end Storwize V7000 platforms. The drive matches MLC NAND Flash with the company's CellCare and Secure Array of Flash Element (S.A.F.E.) technologies designed to boost both endurance and reliability, even in high-volume, heavy transaction environments. The device can also be configured with a 6 G SAS or 4 G Fibre Channel interface to prevent data bottlenecks on the storage network.

The news came on the heels of an announcement by OCZ that it recently entered into a mass-production OEM deal with an unnamed vendor for its Deneva Series MLC device. The deal, rumored to be with HP but not confirmed, calls for SSDs ranging up to 240 GB in quantities up to 15,000 per quarter. Clearly, whoever is calling for those kinds of numbers is of a mind that enterprise customers are not afraid to deploy what some may consider to be the lower end of SSD technology.

That perception, though, may already be behind the times. Back at IBM, the company has seen fit to deploy MLC Flash, in this case SMART's XceedIOPS device, on its new BlueGene/Q supercomputer. Again, the deployment only makes sense once you realize that SMART has loaded the drive with data integrity, wear-leveling and other technologies designed to increase the unit's lifespan and robustness. It is a little odd, however, that IBM seems content with just a 3 G SAS interface.

The issue of data integrity grows in significance as design processes blow past the 34 nm stage and head toward 20 nm or smaller. Micron hopes to get out in front of this trend with the new 25 nm ClearNAND system that integrates tools like error correction directly onto the NAND interface. The thinking here is that they can more effectively enhance performance and reliability than if housed on the host processor.

All of this is good news for the enterprise, which has balked at the high price of Flash even as it embraced the superior performance. Widespread deployment of MLC technology will help bring those costs down even further just as data loads are set to increase yet again with the advent of cloud computing.

A word to the wise, however: SLC still provides a more robust, reliable environment for critical data, just as traditional hard disk and tape drives provide the lowest cost solutions for long-term, bulk storage. As always, careful consideration should be given to the appropriate type and level of storage for each data environment. But at least with more robust MLC designs, there will be more options to choose from.

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