What Woz Sees in Solid State Storage

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It might not be as exciting as “Dancing With The Stars,” but it was enough to get Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak out of retirement.

Wozniak joined solid state storage startup Fusion-io last month amid great fanfare, in the process uniting one of the IT industry’s biggest names with one of its hottest technologies. Based on his reviews on the TV dance show thus far, his chances of success appear much greater at Fusion-io.

Flash-based stolid state drives (SSDs) have been one of the few bright spots for tech spending in a down economy. Despite costing 10 or more times as much as hard disk drives (HDD), SSDs have been catching on in enterprise servers and data storage as a way to speed up the most critical applications.

While the biggest names in the industry have gravitated toward flash drives that emulate hard drives, Salt Lake City-based Fusion-io and a few others have focused on PCIe connections as a way to maximize the drives’ performance. The company’s products include the ioDrive (a direct attached device), ioSAN for storage networking, and ioXtreme for read-intensive environments.

DAS in a Flash

The premise behind the ioDrive is hard to disagree with. Mechanical disks are a major bottleneck on system performance compared to the CPU and memory. So what Fusion-io has done is introduce what is essentially a new tier within the memory hierarchy that has 100 times the capacity density and 10 times the capacity per dollar of traditional Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM).

“Our approach to flash-based makes it possible to have terabytes of near memory speed storage,” said David Flynn, CTO of Fusion-io.

ioDrive is essentially a PCI Express-based approach to direct-attached storage (DAS). To the system itself, it looks like a local disk. Instead of replacing hard drives, as such, everything is on a card that goes into a PCI Express (PCIe) slot.

“If you put in three of these SSDs, you get a TB of capacity, enough to park an entire database on flash,” said Flynn. “That leaves the rest of your disks for lower priority functions such as backup or other systems.”

To add data protection to multi-flash schemes, Fusion-io takes advantage of existing RAID software built into Windows and other operating systems. This makes it a simple matter to set up RAID 0, 1 or 10 for the system, though not RAID 5.

The company claims to provide a “1,000 times performance increase, one hundredth the power, and one tenth of the cost of traditional SANs.” But what exactly does that mean? The latest version, known as ioDrive Duo, can achieve a sustained read bandwidth of 1,500 MB/sec (32k packet size) and a sustained write bandwidth of 1,400 MB/sec. That equates to a read IOPS of 186,000 (4k packet size) and write IOPS of 167,000. That’s significantly faster than even the best hard drive form factor SSDs.

“A SAN with hundreds of drives would be needed to achieve that,” said Flynn.

These capabilities were taken to extremes by IBM (NYSE: IBM) during what was known as Project Quicksilver, which attained more than 1 million IOPS by presenting multiple ioDrives as a shared storage solution.

“IBM used SAN Virtualizationsoftware and our cards to build a storage array that achieved over 1 million IOs in one rack with no disks,” said Flynn. “Previously, it took IBM six or seven racks to reach a quarter million IOs. So that added up to a tenth of the power and 4X performance.”

This earned Fision-io an IBM ServerProven designation, the first solid-state storage to achieve that. IBM appears to be targeting this setup primarily for applications such as database queries and business intelligence.

Redundancy is built into the card via “Flashback” protection — a dedicated flash chip on the PCIe card serves as a parity chip. This eliminates data loss due to chip failures and extends the usable lifetime of the card. Thus the ioDrive controller can instantaneously restore lost data.

The ioDrive is currently available in capacities of 80 GB, 160 GB and 320 GB and is being sold to OEMs and direct to end users. Flynn said that pricing works out at roughly $30 per GB, though volume sales will cost less.

Solid State SAN

While ioDrive can house a decent amount of data on a direct attached basis, the ioSAN has been designed to widen the storage networking scope of flash technology. The basic idea is to combine PCIe-based SSD with 10GigE or 40GBps InfiniBand in order to share data between servers.

“This offers radical improvements in applications that need quick access to data, such as financial services applications and Web services or media editing, as well as more traditional, storage-related applications, such as replication, mirroring, ILM, failover and backup/restoration,” said Flynn. “This has commoditized high-performance network storage in the same way that companies like Nvidia and ATI commoditized high-performance graphics processing.”

Fusion-io is pitching this combination as a way to redefine storage networking based on commodity components, with storage acting at the same speed as the network. As the product isn’t yet on the market, this message is being directed at prospective partners via a developer program, with an eye to ioSAN being incorporated into appliances and other products.

According to Flynn, interest is high. One customer is combining ioSAN with the IBM parallel file system to build scalable NAS. Sun’s (NASDAQ: JAVA) open source platform is being harnessed by others, and another company is addressing replication via ioSAN cards — one in each box — to bypass the need for storage switches or additional shared storage.

“We are commoditizing storage infrastructure so it fits on a card,” said Flynn. General availability is expected in the third quarter.

Extreme Gaming, Dude

Since Fusion-io released its first models, some other vendors have followed suit. Texas Memory Systems has brought out a PCIe-based SSD, and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and Micron (NYSE: MU) are working on the approach too.

Meanwhile, Fusion-io plans to release a consumer product called ioXtreme within a few months, which is focused on read-intensive applications.

“ioXtreme is aimed at gamers, rich media editing and high-read applications like PhotoShop,” said Flynn.

And that just might benefit Apple Mac users too.

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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