EMC ramps up flash game with VFCache, 'Thunder' appliance

VFCache, code-named Lightning, will provide flash storage as cache on PCIe cards inside servers

EMC is now shipping its long-awaited entry in the server-based flash storage market while laying the groundwork for a future appliance based on the same technology.

The company is positioning VFCache, previously code-named Project Lightning, as an extension of its FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) architecture. That system is designed to shift data among various types of systems to keep the most-needed data most available to applications. VFCache forms another tier of storage within a server, accessible via the system's fast PCIe bus.

Other vendors beat EMC to this approach, most famously Fusion-io, which has been selling PCIe-based flash cards since 2008. But EMC says VFCache can take this approach to storage into the mainstream, beyond specialized companies such as Apple and Facebook. It will tie into EMC storage arrays already in use in traditional enterprises and provide those users a dramatic boost in performance, according to the company.

After speeding up storage access by bringing intensively used data into servers, EMC plans to boost performance even more by combining multiple PCIe cards in an appliance, code-named Thunder. Multiple servers will be able to connect to a shared Thunder via InfiniBand or 40-Gigabit Ethernet, said Mark Sorenson, senior vice president and general manager of EMC's flash business unit.

While spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) have steadily grown in capacity over the past several years, getting to the data they hold has not gotten faster. Flash overcomes that speed limitation, and EMC has offered flash since 2008 in the form of SSDs (solid-state drives) for its storage arrays. PCIe flash cards in servers add to flash's speed advantage by eliminating the SAN (storage-area network) connections that data from those SSDs needs to traverse.

EMC claims that while SSDs in a storage array deliver 300 times faster data access than HDDs, PCIe flash cards offer 4,000 times faster access than HDDs. That gain comes from both higher I/O performance and lower latency. The Thunder appliance will be able to deliver similar latency and even higher I/O performance because it will be able to use several PCIe buses in parallel, Sorenson said.

VFCache will start out as a 300GB PCIe flash card, with larger sizes coming later. It can be used in all standard rack-mounted servers and will come in a different form factor for blade servers in the future. The Thunder appliance could be configured with 10TB to 15TB of flash capacity, Sorenson said.

VFCache will act as a "read" cache of the data most immediately needed, a copy of which will also remain in persistent storage. In future versions, it will get tighter integration with FAST, including the ability to give hints about what data it may use next. Sorenson said. The product will also gain a deduplication feature for more efficient use of its storage space

In addition to integrating its PCIe flash products with the FAST system that works across its other storage products, EMC has brought greater manageability to the market under the umbrella of its existing management software, Sorenson said. He downplayed the value of PCIe cards by themselves, saying the best architecture for general enterprises will continue to be a hybrid of fast flash and cheaper, higher-capacity HDDs.

"We don't see the price points of flash and spinning disk crossing, probably, in your or my lifetime," Sorenson said.

By using flash cards as cache in hybrid architectures, EMC could make the technology more useful to the average enterprise, Forrester Research analyst Andrew Reichman said. Fusion-io's weak spot is data protection and management, which the company's big Web customers can handle better than a typical IT shop, Reichman said. In its most recent reported quarter, Fusion-io said 57 percent of its revenue came from Facebook and Apple.

"If you're Facebook, and you've got an army of developers, and you can figure out how to protect the data and write your own code to be aware of where the data is ... then that makes sense," Reichman said. For general enterprises, less so, he said.

However, EMC's tiering system, FAST, is only now coming into maturity, he added.

Because of its size, EMC also may be better able to educate the market about flash cards, ultimately helping Fusion-io, which in any case probably won't lose its major customers to EMC, he said.

The company's size may also give a boost to Thunder, a concept that's similar to past products that haven't found a large market, Reichman said. Thunder could be useful for clusters of servers sharing a set of data, he said.

Fusion-io sees itself as a neutral party selling flash cards that can be used in conjunction with anyone's storage arrays, and EMC as the equivalent of a mainframe vendor trying to lock in its SAN customers. The larger player is threatened, said David Flynn, Fusion-io's president and CEO.

"We have replaced many a SAN out there, and I think this is their response to that erosion, because the market is shifting," Flynn said.

VFCache is available now. EMC did not disclose pricing but said it would be competitive. The unnamed Thunder product is scheduled to reach the first test customers in April.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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