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Flash Memory Storage Virtualization: Faster And Affordable?

Startup FlashSoft aims to speed storage access by virtualizing a new tier of flash between CPU and hard drive.

Flash memory is much faster than hard disks, but too expensive for most enterprises to place onboard servers. Startup FlashSoft on Tuesday announced software that aims to solve this problem by caching data in flash memory onboard servers, a technique that it claims can dramatically boost the performance of storage networks at little additional cost. The company is also launching itself, announcing a $3 million funding round and plans for future expansion.

"We give you a new layer of fast, persistent storage right next to the CPU," said FlashSoft founder and CEO Ted Sanford in an interview. He describes this layer as "tier minus one" storage because it's directly attached to servers themselves, in contrast to the traditional tiers zero and above which are accessed across a SAN. Combined with the inherent speed of flash, this proximity makes access much faster, with FlashSoft claiming that it can cut latency by at least half a millisecond and accelerate applications by a factor of between four and ten.

Storing data on locally attached flash isn't a new idea, of course, but FlashSoft says that its approach is different because it doesn't try to store everything in flash. Sanford estimates that for most applications, 90% of data more than 90 days old is never actually accessed, so only about 10% needs to be kept close to the server. The trick is to figure out which 10%. FlashSoft aims to achieve this through what it calls active data management, which involves tracing data I/O using proprietary algorithms implemented in software. "The economic value of data is all upfront," said Sanford. "It makes sense to put your hottest data on your fastest medium."

Because it works at the I/O level, FlashSoft's technology is application independent, though to optimize access it does need to consider the physical parameters of the flash drives it is using. To this end, FlashSoft has partnered with flash manufacturers including SanDisk, Virident, and LSI and supports solid state disks (SSDs) connected through PCIe, SAS, and SATA. FlashSoft says that its algorithms enable servers to use fewer SSDs than they would otherwise need to achieve the same performance gains, an effect it dubs flash virtualization because it increases the apparent SSD capacity.

"Even with a small amount of fash, we can get the performance as if had a larger amount of storage in flash," said Sanford. However, he says that the SSD manufacturers are still enthusiastic partners because the technology has the potential to make their products much more widely applicable and broaden the market. Rather than the drive manufacturers, he identifies EMC's Project Lightning as FlashSoft's main competitor. Announced last month, this is a plan to more closely integrate flash into EMC's storage products through both all-flash arrays and new fully automated storage tiering (FAST) software that aims to do much the same as FlashSoft.

FlashSoft products have been shipping since early this year, though it won't disclose how many customers it has. "We're announcing two," said Sanford. These are mobile service management vendor Zenprise and video game publisher Trion Worlds, both of which say that it enabled them to overcome I/O bottlenecks. Zenprise says that it increased the number of virtual machines running under Windows Server 2008 r2 from five to 13, while FlashSoft's own testing says that it only needs 100 MB of system RAM to manage 1TB of flash.

The product currently only works with Windows Server 2008 R2 and Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor, but the company says it plans to support other platforms soon. It says that a Linux version currently in beta testing will be available this summer, and has also partnered with VMware to deliver a VMware version at a later date. Pricing is dependent on the number and type of servers and SSDs used, with potential customers able to download a 30-day trial version from FlashSoft's site.

Along with its first product, FlashSoft is also announcing its Series A funding round of $3 million. The investment round was led by Thomvest Ventures, with Divergent Ventures, Bullpen Capital, and Accelerator Ventures also participating. It brings the company's total capitalization to $3.5 million, following a seed round from angel investors at its founding in November 2009. This isn't much by the standards of other networking startups, but Sanford says he expects it to last about two years. That's partly because the company has been shipping products for revenue while in stealth mode, and partly because it has just 12 employees--eight in its Mountain View headquarters, four in St. Petersburg, Russia. The company picked the latter because of personal connections. "The core engineers here are Russian," he said. "And there are some good academic institutions there." It expects to add another six to eight employees by the end of this year.

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