Revolution in January: EMC Brings Flash Drives into the Data Center

Rob Enderle

Most of us in technology were just starting to get used to the idea that flash drives would start ramping slowly, because they are so expensive, into the desktop market this year. We believed any move into the data center was a long way off.


Then came news that EMC is integrating flash-based solid-state drives into its core enterprise portfolio. I was blindsided by a move I considered a decade down the road.


I'm not sure many truly realize what a massive change this potentially means, but it seemed to add up to a really positive week for EMC.


Flash Drives: What Is Taking So Long?


We started talking about flash taking magnetic media out more than a decade ago. It's been surprising how fast magnetic media has advanced in technology and dropped in price. As a result, it held on much longer than anyone expected. But the belief remained that solid-state drives eventually would take over. We just moved out the timeline.


We certainly saw flash creep into areas where CDs once dominated, and currently some of the most desirable MP3 music players are flash-based. They replaced floppy drives several years earlier as a good way to move files from place to place, and now flash drives appear to be used more often than CDs for that purpose.


Last year, we saw the first 32- and 64-gigabyte drives come to market. But they either used an outdated drive interface, which bottlenecked the product, or had controller problems, which caused the drives to fail, according to the PC OEMs.


This was being worked on, but products that provided the performance we'd been promised were still on hold for the desktop, and no one was looking at the back office.


Benefits and Liabilities of Flash Drives


Flash drives have a number of core benefits. They are solid state, so they don't have the inherent mechanical hardware exposures enjoyed by rotating media; they use much less power; they can survive a lot of abuse; they generate far less heat; and they have blinding speed when compared to traditional magnetic media.


This obviously made them an ideal choice for notebook computers, and both Toshiba and Dell provided early notebook products that used them. Apple is expected to announce similar offerings shortly. However, we tended to miss that many of these same advantages would benefit data centers -- particularly the low-heat, high-performance part.


There are two big problems with the flash drives: They wear out, and they are way too expensive. Evidently, though, engineers have figured out how to design around these limitations. Longevity isn't the problem it once was, and the cost for these products seems to be dropping 50 percent a year, making them vastly more affordable. They remain too expensive for most, but where money isn't so much an issue, as is enterprises where speed can make $100 million of difference, these things suddenly are attracting a lot of interest.


The EMC/STEC Announcement


EMC and STEC announced the ultimate solid-state drive for data centers. Working together, they packaged hardware and management software needed to make efficient use of this otherwise expensive resource. This appears to be a complete solution, not just a drive, connected to EMC's high-end, high-performance, Symmetrix platform.


It would take an estimated 30 15,000 RPM Fibre Channel drives to equal the same performance as one of these drives, which only consume 2 percent of the power that the 30-drive solution would require.


Targeted at applications such as trading floor, banking and military, the performance advantages coupled with a heat and power benefit, rather than the normal penalty, should prove attractive. This last might be just as critical as the performance boost because data centers often operate right at thermal limits. Getting something that generates less heat than the equipment it replaces could prevent an expensive cooling-system retrofit, which can cost millions.


Wrapping Up


This means flash has truly arrived. Now the clock can start with regard to the replacement of hard drives by solid-state drives. While this may take a decade or more, it should start to peak in five years as advancements in solid-state technology are occurring faster than with magnetic media, and magnetic media is starting to lose entire markets. While optical is likely to go first, magnetic media will soon follow, and by 2020, both should be mostly memories.


By then, we'll probably know what comes after solid-state drives, but some of us will be able to look back to this week and say that this was when the market truly started to move to solid-state media. 2008 is the first truly revolutionary year for large-scale solid-state storage.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 15, 2008 3:13 PM Kachina Dunn Kachina Dunn  says:
Rob, can you shed any light on what should be upcoming offerings in early 2008 from Micron and BiTMICRO? Reply
Jan 15, 2008 6:02 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Sure, BitMicro has what appears to be a really fast flash disk called the E-Disk Altima E3F4FL (which clearly was named by someone that doesnt believe folks should actually remember the product). It goes up to 1.6 Terabytes and has a 3.5 inch form factor. Sampling is due in Q1 with final product likely to ship in the following quarter. There is no indication they are working with anyone for the management side (though that typically would be announced closer to the general availability of the drive anyway). I dont have any indications on how well this drive actually works yet and likely wont until sometime in Q2. Microns efforts, to my knowledge, have been in the notebook computer space and this is where we have been seeing a lot of the controller issues. Evidently these drives arent that easy to make work properly. Im not aware of an offering they have in this high performance back office space yet but it would be natural for them to play here. IBM has actually done some interesting work here as well but doesn't yet appear to be at the same performance level. Though this will likely change by year end. With Apple's announcement today putting flash drives on the MacBook Air this is really is the year of Flash. What makes the EMC thing different is the integration of the flash drive into a high performance storage solution. This wasnt expected for some time after the drives became available and, in the back office space, folks typically wait until a solution is available with a new technology like this because they arent generally equipped to do the work to create it themselves. Here are some references:http://www.computerworld.com.au/index.php/id;2085072154;fp;16;fpid;1http://www.bitmicro.com/press_news_releases_20071112.phphttp://www.mysiriuszone.com/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,2113/Itemid,484/http://news.digitaltrends.com/talkback230.html Reply
Jan 17, 2008 6:41 PM Robert Robert  says:
"some of us will be able to look back to this week and say that this was when the market truly started to move to solid-state media."Goes along to say with Apple's new Air laptop as well announced this week.As an avionics designer, I made a recommendation that a system I was designing four years ago select solid-state storage (because the system is now in development and price would be much better when it goes production). I had all kinds of resistance and sneers and eventually didn't get listened to. The money that has been spent on industrializing standard ATA drives for an aircraft has far exceeded what would have been paid for solid-state by now. Eventually, they gave up and went with solid-state without saying anything to me (I moved up to another program and system). Oh well...Your article states alot of the benefits of speed for data centers, but in the embedded world, this is a welcome sign. I had predicted the momentum shift to be 2009... Reply
Jan 17, 2008 7:04 PM Robert Robert  says:
Sorry, for those who my not understand my post - solid state has existed for embedded systems for a long time, but affordable and used only for small capacity and critical applications. The system I designed required a minimum of 80GB of storage for itself alone. New versions of this system require more.Four years ago, an 80GB solid-state drive was hard to find and if you did find one, it cost anywhere upwards from 40K US dollars - depending on how hardened you needed it to survive extreme environmental exposures.Apple's Air can offer a 64GB solid-state drive if you want for a price difference of 1299 US dollars from the non-solid-state 80 GB drive. So, the price/performance is definitely becoming mainstream. Reply

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