EMC launches 'Project Lightning' PCIe cards

'Project Thunder' to follow in Q2 as an all-flash appliance

EMC on Monday will launch its long-awaited "Project Lightning," now called the VFCache product line, an initiative to sell PCIe-based NAND flash cards for servers as a caching element to increase I/O performance by up to 4,000 times.

The company also will announce "Project Thunder," which in the second quarter will have EMC selling appliances filled with 15TB or more of PCIe-based NAND flash storage. The appliances will be connected to server farms through the InfiniBand network protocol. The appliances will hold five, 10 or 15 PCIe cards, according to EMC.

"You can think of it as a big, sharable, scalable VFCache card," said Mark Sorenson, senior vice president of EMC's Flash Business Unit. "We're talking hundreds of millions of [I/Os per second]."

VFCache cards are based on high-end, single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash as opposed to more popular multi-level cell (MLC) flash, which has higher capacity points but natively lower performance and endurance.

Currently, EMC also sells solid-state drives (SSDs) in a 2.5-in form factor using a SAS interface in its storage arrays. Sorenson said the company will transition this year to MLC-based SSDs in its arrays, which are less expensive and -- when combined with special firmware -- can achieve enterprise-class endurance levels.

Today, EMC announced it has shipped over 24 petabytes of NAND flash capacity through its array sales, which represents an 800% growth rate from 2009 to 2011.

EMC's new VFCache PCIe cards, which are primarily being supplied to EMC by Micron Technology, will come in 300GB capacities; Sorenson said EMC expects to ship 700GB cards this summer, though he believes 300GB is "the sweet spot."

VFCache card sales, which will be offered by EMC and through channel partners, will be focused on read-intensive application servers, as might be found in Oracle and SQL databases, Sharepoint or even Exchange environments.

Sorenson said it's safe to assume that EMC will also be bundling the cards with Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) servers. The servers are one piece of vBlock, the joint venture EMC has with Cisco and VMware that combines EMC storage arrays and VMware virtualization software, along with Cisco servers and networking switches in a pre-tested configuration.

Sorenson made it clear that the flash cards -- and the upcoming flash appliances -- are complimentary to backend primary storage arrays, which are better at serving write-intensive applications. He said the flash products will not cannibalize the company's networked storage arrays, but act as NAND flash cache on the front end.

"You will see more reads served out of servers and the back-end storage arrays will have more bandwidth to deal with writes," Sorenson said. "EMC backend storage arrays are very good for that."

EMC is reselling a version of Micron's P320h product in a half-height, half-length form factor. It has a maximum sequential read performance of 3.2GB/sec using 128K blocks. It can generate up to 715,000 IOPS using 4K random blocks, according to EMC.

Micron's P320h SSD
Micron's P320h SSD.

VFCache cards install into a server's standard PCIe slot, and come with a filter driver that runs in the host server. As the host issues an I/O operation, the VFCache driver intercepts it, checks the table in its memory as to what data is in the cache, and if the data is on the flash memory it serves that I/O read request from the server; If the data is not in cache memory, the driver sends a read or write request through the storage area network to an EMC storage array.

Sorenson said VFCache has not been qualified to operate with other vendors' storage arrays, but there's no reason it shouldn't. It is, however, optimized to work with EMC storage, he said. "There's no vendor lock-in with this product," he added.

Sorenson also suggested that the new PCIe cards are not well suited for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and server virtualization environments, saying those operations are best served by networked storage arrays."

"VDI is OK to use with this, but there are typically more writes in that environment than are optimum for this," he said. "With virtual environments, it depends on the use case and the application running in that environment."

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