Sun Sets Sights on SSDs

Vendor rolls out its solid state disk roadmap, but users may take some convincing

June 4, 2008

4 Min Read
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Sun is the latest vendor to throw its weight behind solid state disk, unveiling an ambitious plan to add Flash-based SSDs to its servers and storage systems.

The most exciting thing going on in storage today is solid state disk,” said John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun’s systems division, during an event for media and analysts in Boston yesterday. “It will be the largest change in storage price performance in a decade.”

The exec explained that Sun is planning to offer 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch SSDs across its servers and storage products in the second half of this year. Sun has already tweaked its ZFS file system to handle solid state.

“ZFS automatically understands the concept of a pool of storage,” Fowler said, explaining that the file system could be used to manage a “hybrid” infrastructure of both SSDs and traditional disk drives.

SSDs are gaining momentum as a fast-access alternative to traditional magnetic or optical media. HBA specialist Emulex, for example, recently announced plans for a Fibre Channel-to-SSD bridge, and both HDS and EMC have embraced SSD technology .“With SSDs you get several orders of magnitude greater performance,” said Sun’s Fowler, citing up to 8,000 write IOPs for an SSD, compared to just 180 write IOPs for a traditional hard disk drive.

Sun is also touting the technology’s green credentials, claiming that the lack of moving parts in SSDs slash users’ power costs. Overall, SSDs consume just 20 percent of the energy of a typical hard disk drive, according to Fowler.

Like EMC, Sun is using NAND-based Flash for its SSDs, but the vendor is less forthcoming on product specifics than its rival. EMC is OEMing 3.5-inch drives from STEC in its Symmetrix DMX-4. Fowler would not say which manufacturers will provide Sun’s SSDs.

“Some of this is new technology -- the manufacturers have not been announced yet,” he said, vaguely. “Sun has been working closely with both core manufacturers of NAND [Flash] technology and people that are going to be working with SSDs.”

The vendor certainly has a wealth of options for sourcing these disks. In addition to STEC, other manufacturers playing in this space include Samsung, Seagate, and Intel.Sun made a presentation on its SSD roadmap at last year’s Intel Developer Forum, which suggests that the chip specialist could feature prominently in Sun’s plans. Intel’s Enterprise SSD, for example, is a 32-Gbyte device offering up to 7,000 write IOPs, which places the technology firmly within Sun’s SSD ideal performance window.

EMC has also been talking up its own SSD strategy, recently predicting that Flash memory could mount a real challenge to Fibre Channel drives by 2010.

Sun’s Fowler was even more bullish during yesterday’s media event. “People have been talking about 2010, but forget that,” he said. ”There will be rapid adoption of SSDs for performance-intensive workloads later this year.”

Early adopters of SSDs are likely to focus on I/O-intensive applications like Oracle databases and data analytics, according to Fowler: “Any application that does data-intensive stuff will use this."

Despite Sun’s bullishness, at least one analyst thinks users may need some convincing before they switch to SSDs.“I am not sure that there is any reason to believe that the adoption curve will be any faster than other substantially new approaches to storage,” says John Webster, principal IT advisor at Illuminata. “The comparison to be made is with RAID early in its lifecycle: There were RAID arrays from a number of different vendors, but users had to be convinced that it was reliable.”

Another major stumbling block for Flash-based SSD technology is its cost compared to traditional magnetic media. A 1-Tbyte hard drive, for example, runs at about $550, while an SSD with the same capacity could run to more than $10,000.

Sun indicated that it will offer low-cost SSDs when it launches its technology later this year, although even Fowler admitted that there will still be a price disparity with hard disk drives.

“Flash is more expensive on a dollar-per-Gigabyte basis than traditional disk drive storage, but that’s OK,” he said. “It’s not comparable [in terms] of performance -- it uses one fifth of the energy, and it’s 100 times faster.”

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  • Emulex Corp. (NYSE: ELX)

  • Hitachi Data Systems (HDS)

  • Illuminata Inc.

  • Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)

  • Samsung Corp.

  • Seagate Technology Inc. (NYSE: STX)

  • STEC Inc.

  • Sun Microsystems Inc.0

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