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PCIe Flash Market Heats Up

Apparently, people who are able to put their money where their mouths are think that the market for PCIe attached flash memory is bigger than Fusion IO selling a couple of thousand cards to Facebook to speed up drunken frat-boy photo load times. Just this week, Texas Memory Systems and Micron released new high-end PCIe flash cards that push the performance and capacity envelopes for PCIe flash.

Texas Memory’s RamSan-70, code-named Gorilla for its 900 GBytes of single-level cell (SLC) capacity, uses Toshiba's 32 NAND chips to deliver about 330,000 random read input/output operations per second (IOPS) at about 2-GBps bandwidth. To manage that 900 GBytes of flash, TMS has built its own flash controller using a PowerPC CPU and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The on-board processor does the heavy lifting of write leveling and on-board RAIN (redundant array of independent NAND) like data protection.

Micron P320h, while it doesn't quite match up to the RamSan-70 on a capacity basis, delivers even more impressive read I/O performance. Micron says the little devil can deliver 750,000 random read IOPs, which is darned impressive. TMS catches up on the write IOPs, however, as the RamSan-70 delivers 400,000 and Micron can only manage 341,000. Like the RamSAN, it implements 7+1 RAIN for data protection. I don't know whether to be impressed with the read performance of the Micron or upset at how asymmetrical its performance is.

The new cards from Micron and TMS both compete not only with Fusion-io's ioDrive, but also with LSI’s WarpDrive, Virident TachION and with the PCIe flash card to come as part of EMC’s Lightning, which is also expected to hit the market as an Intel OEM or whitebox product. It seems to me that’s a lot of players chasing the high-end users that want to avoid the few microseconds of additional latency involved in crossing a SAS or SATA interface or Fibre Channel network.

Micron’s entry to the market is also significant because of its vertical integration. Where TMS, LSI, Virident and Marvell have to buy NAND chips from Toshiba or Samsung, Micron produces its own NAND in a joint venture with Intel. This puts Micron and Intel, when they enter the market, in a position to underprice Fusion-io and others, and still make a profit.

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