SSDs in the Fast Lane

Arthur Cole

With VMworld drawing much of the attention in data center circles last week, I thought I'd catch up on some of the other technology segments impacting the industry. And the first one that comes to mind is SSDs.


It seems like the technology is moving ahead on several fronts, offering hope that it will be both cheaper and more effective in enterprise settings.


While it's most common for new technologies to make themselves known in high-end circles before trickling down to workaday environments, SSDs have taken the opposite path -- from largely consumer products to professional data equipment. Now, it seems it has made the leap to HPC environments with the introduction of an SSD cluster at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The group recently powered up a new SSD-loaded Appro cluster nicknamed Dash. The system provides more than 5 teraflop performance from an InfiniBand-wired Nehalem blade cluster governed by ScaleMP's vSMP software that pools regular hard drive and flash memory into multiple storage nodes. Regular DRAM is used for mostly raw storage, while the SSDs go mainly toward file I/O and memory swapping.


At the same time, prices are dropping -- not only for the lower cost but slower multi-level cell (MLC) technology, but the faster and more reliable single-level cell (SLC) systems that are likely to be in high demand for enterprise workloads. A company called OCZ is combining low-cost Flash controllers from a Korean company called Indilinx with SLC systems from second-tier manufacturers that are undercutting market leader Samsung. The result is the new Agility EX, a 60 GB drive that is expected to hit the market at $399 -- about two-thirds less than current drive technology.


But despite these advances, no one expects SSDs to completely boot HDDs out of the enterprise. Rather, SSDs are slated for only the most urgent data. But that's going to require fairly sophisticated automated tiering technology, which, fortunately, companies like Symantec and Compellent are already working on. The main challenge here is devising a system than can identify the critical data and route it to the appropriate tier without a lot of hands-on management from the storage administrator.


SSDs are also poised to have an impact on the PC, where they could vastly improve boot times and general data processing. However, a report from Objective Analysis argues that a new technology from Intel called Braidwood could throw a wrench into that plan. The system essentially provides a flash memory module for the motherboard that has a 4-16 GB read/write cache, at a cost of about $20. The question OB analyst Jim Handy asks is whether PC users would still want a $500 SSD when all urgent data could be handled by the Braidwood system. Intel, which also plans to sell SSDs for PCs, says it doesn't see a conflict. It will be interesting to see who's right when the system is launched early next year.


The way things are going, it will be hard to avoid SSDs in the near future even if you wanted to. There's a strong possibility that on-server drives will become the norm in a few short years, adding yet another component to an already complex environment.


Best to go in with your eyes open, then, so you'll have a clear idea of how you want to use them when they arrive at your doorstep.



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