A flash surprise from EMC

EMC has surprised much of the storage world by announcing that it will soon be selling its top of the line Symmetrix DMX system with solid state flash drives in addition to hard disk drives.

The flash drives boast faster read-write times than hard drives, consume much less energy and offer the promise of greater durability because they don’t have moving parts.

Although industry analysts have been predicting that solid state drives will move away from MP3 players and digital cameras, being integrated into a storage array this year came as a surprise to some.

However, the models EMC is offering are expensive – it wouldn’t detail the numbers, but said they will cost about 30 times more than an equivalent hard drives – and therefore at this point in time are aimed at industries willing to pay for the technology, such as financial trading companies.

Still, that hasn’t stopped EMC from crowing.

“We have changed enterprise storage fundamentally,” Peter Lavache, director of the company’s storage platform program, said in an interview.

“We see flash technology as a future high-end technology for all storage. As prices come down and more people get into this market, you’re going to see flash drives become mainstream drives . . . over the next couple of years.”

Among those caught flat-footed are enterprise storage system manufacturers Hitachi Data Systems and IBM. Almost as surprising as the news of the announcement was the fact that it was made by EMC, which often follows others.

As Mark Peters, a Colorado-based storage analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group said, “you don’t expect EMC to always be leading the charge.” For example, he said, at the same time as it made the flash announcement EMC also introduced virtual provisioning for the DMX line. However, it’s following other storage array manufacturers there, Peters said.

Peters and John Sloan, a senior analyst with Info-Tech Research of London, Ont., agreed that, assuming the technology is stable, flash will eventually push out hard disks for Tier 1 and 2 storage as prices fall. “It will be a significant part of storage in the next five years,” said Sloan The fact that EMC, a major array manufacturer, shows confidence in the technology “makes it more for real,” he added.

Neither could say if another manufacturer will offer flash drives this year, but Sloan said EMC’s move will “turn up the heat” on competitors.

One of them, Hitachi Data Systems, tried to downplay EMC’s move. Claus Mikkelsen, HDS’s chief scientist, said his company has been looking at the technology for some time but said there are questions whether its “ready for prime time,” and whether customers are willing to pay the premium for it.

Because flash drives are inside the array, data has to move through its cache before being served to an application, he argued, so no matter how fast flash drives are the cache is a limiting factor.

That said, “we’re going to watch this space for the next 30 – 60 days,” he said, “and if it looks like there’s something there, we’ll jump in.”

EMC’s flash drives are made by STEC Inc. of Santa Anna, Calif. Lavache wouldn’t say if it’s an exclusive deal, only that it’s “beneficial to both companies. The Zeus-IOPS’ NAND drives, which STEC began selling last year to equipment manufacturers, are offered only in 73G and 146G capacities.

That compares to the latest 1TB SATA II drives just coming on the market. However, in addition to being much faster the flash drives, which come in 3.5-inch enclosures, can be mixed with Fibre Channel and SATA hard drives in a DMX-4 array to meet needs of different applications.

Lavache said that for its version EMC has added massively parallel front ends to withstand high read-write demands and added intelligent software into the drives to ensure workloads are spread across the memory cells to ensure reliability and longevity.

STEC said its drive can handle up to 52,000 sustained random reads and 17,000 writes per second, or up to 250MB/sec sustained, sequential reads and 200MB/sec sustained, sequential writes. Lavache put it another way: the response time of an STEC drive would be 1 millisecond compared to 6 milliseconds for a Fibre Channel drive.

Hard drives have been stuck at 15,000 rpm for some time, Lavache said, so flash, with its “vertical leap in performance” offers great benefits to organizations with demanding loads.

Because the Zeus-IOPS drives are so expensive, Lavache said they’ll likely be only a small part of any arrays ordered. He said an installation with four flash drives will only increase the cost of a system by 10 per cent.

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