Solid State Disk Enhancements Emerge

Growing interest is linked to SSDs that deploy newer flash-based technology

October 20, 2007

6 Min Read
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With prices slowly dipping and companies clamoring for higher-speed I/O, the solid state disk (SSD) market is seeing early signs of steady growth, though both analysts and vendors warn: Beware of the hype.

In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of announcements on new and upgraded solid-state products, reports of venture funds flowing toward SSD, and a packed house at an SSD-centered discussion at this weeks Storage Networking World trade confab in Dallas.

“There is movement in the enterprise to look at and investigate SSD,” says IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz, adding that interest in the product segment has boomed in the last six months to a year.

Some of that recent interest is linked to SSDs that deploy newer flash-based technology -- as opposed to Dynamic-Random Access Memory (D-RAM). The use of flash memory makes the drives somewhat more financially feasible after years of being way too pricey for many companies.SSDs use RAM or flash technology instead of traditional magnetic or optical media to store and access data. As a result, access speeds are typically much faster than traditional disk -- 5 milliseconds for magnetic versus as little as 20 microseconds for solid state -- eliminating I/O bottlenecking. And since SSDs are not mechanical like HDDs and there are many fewer components involved to offer high capacity, there is less room for failure.

Yet the price disparity between SSD and traditional disk is steep: A 1-Tbyte hard drive runs at about $550, while an SSD with the same capacity could run to more than $10,000 -- or higher for SSD with D-RAM.

The price differential historically has meant that SSD technology was mostly sold to super-security accounts like the military and other government agencies, or high-end financial firms that needed reliability and rapid access to data at any cost.

But flash offers some price relief on a technology that offers better read technology than it does write technology, but with performance profiles not quite up to D-RAM.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Byte and Switch's editors directly, send us a message.“The idea was to develop something that was not as fast as DDR [high-end double data rate memory -- another SSD technology] and not as expensive, but not as slow as enterprise RAID devices and not as inexpensive. These are further up the storage hierarchy than RAID, but lower than DDR," says Woody Hutsell, executive vice president of Texas Memory Systems’ SSD division.

In September, Texas Memory announced a flash-based SSD, the RAMSAN 500, that it claims will deliver 100,000 I/Os per second sustained random read and 10,000 I/Os sustained random write.

Hutsell says Texas Memory has always used faster DDR RAM as the front end for very high-end disk storage offerings. But in the new system, DDR is used for cache only, with flash RAM used in place of hard drives. The RAMSAN uses 16 Gbytes to 64 Gbytes of DDR RAM and offers 2 Tbytes of flash memory storage.

The financial difference is that a 2-Tbyte flash system form Texas Memory has a list price of $300,000, while the same solution with all-DDR would be $1.2 million, Hutsell says.

But 1 Tbyte of hard drive could be as low as $550. (More on that momentarily.)Still, there is a need in the market, and Texas Memory has its competitors – many of whom are selling into large OEMs that can give the technology heavy play.

In August, memory maker STEC Inc. announced an extension of its high-end flash-based Zeus-IOPS family of SSDs with 3-Gbit/s SAS and SATA drives in a 3.5-inch form factor. STEC also announced the MACH 8, which is a lower-cost “drop-in” replacement for HDDs. STEC claims the MACH8 will deliver 10,000 I/Os per second susteained random read and 17,000 I/Os per second sustained random write. Pricing is still unavailable, but the products are set to ship this quarter, STEC says.

Also in August, Solid Data Systems unveiled a 1-Tbyte SSD, and in July IBM announced plans to deploy flash memory SSDs from SanDisk in its blade servers.

The new product announcements are coupled by investor support. In September, SSD company BitMicro Networks announced it has raised $9.3 million in funding, which will be used to develop flash-based E-Disk SSD and semiconductor storage solutions. The company has now raised a total of $31.4 million in private funding.

As part of LSI's announcement that it will refocus entirely on storage, that company plans a data management offering tied to Solid State Disk (SSD) as well as traditional magnetic disk technology.Analyst Jim McGregor of In-Stat says the trick to understanding SSDs is that they are, in fact, not set to displace HDDs anytime soon. Word around the industry for 10 years has been that SSDs would overtake HDDs, he says, but that won’t happen. “Every time there has been a brick wall, the hard drive industry overcomes it,” says McGregor.

IDC’s Janukowicz says that for enterprises that deal in financial services, e-commerce, or telecom networking, which stand to lose billions of dollars by not being able to access data within microseconds, it’s not the price-per-Gbyte formula that is being heeded, but the price per I/O. This formula can also justify high-end use of D-RAM or DDR technology for high-end data needs.

Moreover, companies can end up spending more money and risk than expected patching together many hard drives to meet their I/O needs. “SSD fits in where people are misusing hard drives,” says STEC’s vice president of marketing and business development Patrick Wilkison. “When you have a single (SSD) drive that can serve 50,000 random I/Os, that’s the equivalent of 200 hard drives.”

For IBM, that’s also where the green issue comes into play. “We in the blade business are always looking at ways to improve reliability and the power envelope of the blade environment,” says Karin Beaty, global product marketing manager for IBM BladeCenter. Beaty says for every 1 to 2 watts used per SSD there are 14 to 16 watts used for a SAS drive. “For a customer with thousands of blades, that could mean a big difference.”

But Beaty also doesn’t think SSDs will replace HDDs – at least for now. In her view, the rise of SSD alternatives indicates the technology is finding its "solid" place in the storage market. A few years down the line, there may be a different story to tell.Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Byte and Switch's editors directly, send us a message.

  • BitMicro Networks Inc.

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • IDC

  • In-Stat/MDR

  • LSI Corp. (NYSE: LSI)

  • Solid Data Systems

  • STEC Inc.

  • Texas Memory Systems Inc.0

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