EMC execs: We'll drive SSD cost down 'as fast as we can'

EMC's SSD drives have a 30:1 performance advantage over their fastest spinning disk

LAS VEGAS -- EMC Corp. plans to play a big role in forcing the price of solid-state disk (SSD) drives down as it deploys the technology throughout its family of enterprise-class disk storage arrays.

At the EMC World conference this week, both EMC CEO Joe Tucci and Dave Donatelli, EMC's executive vice president of storage platforms operations, emphasized the importance that faster SSD drive technology will play at the highest level of enterprise-class primary storage and that SSDs will be on price parity with the highest performance Fibre Channel drives the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011. "Over the next two years, all [data] recovery will come off disk ... not tape," Tucci said. "Tape is too slow."

EMC announced support for SSD drives in its enterprise-class DMX array in January (see "EMC offers solid-state disk in Symmetrix").

"The market for flash is coming down significantly faster than rotating drives right now," Donatelli said. "Our stated corporate goal is we're trying to drive it down as fast as we can." (see "New hybrid drives promise faster Vista laptops, PCs, servers)

One reason Donatelli believes EMC customers will embrace SSD over spinning disk is that currently there are "tons of customers" buying the most expensive 15K Fibre Channel drives for their arrays, but they're not fully utilizing the drive capacity because as their applications increase IOPS to a disk drive, the response time goes up "to a point that it is unacceptable for their applications."

So, Donatelli said, the work-around for EMC customers is to purchase more drives and put less data on them in order to spread the I/Os out and drive up response time -- a very costly fix.

Donatelli said "the beauty of flash" in EMC's arrays is that it has 30 times the IOPS compared to its best Fibre Channel drives. EMC is currently using drives that it developed in conjunction with STEC Inc.

STEC is currently facing a patent-infringement lawsuit from Seagate Technology LLC over its SSD drives (see "Seagate suit against STEC could raise SSD prices").

Asked about the lawsuit, Donatelli said EMC will also open itself up to using other manufacturers' SSDs such as Intel-Micron and Samsung.

Donatelli shows off the solid state disk drives EMC is using in its enterprise-class disk subsystems
EMC's Dave Donatelli

"First of all, the lawsuit has no bearing on it," Donatelli said. "And, our corporate strategy for years has been to be a multisource. And we'll have the same strategy in this space."

K.J. Burke, a systems engineer at Barrick Gold Corp., a gold mining operation in Toronto, said above other technology mentioned during conference keynote speeches was Tucci's intention to use more SSDs. Oftentimes, Barrick's servers and disk arrays are located near or on mine sites, such as Peru, Chile and Tanzania.

"We've already gone to more rugged Cisco routers. What I like about solid-state disk is there are no moving parts to break down," he said. "Also, we pay about $4 a kilowatt hour for power in our Tanzania location. We would pay the additional cost to purchase solid-state disks just to be able to reduce the amount of power we use."

After some initial investigation into savings around SSD technology, Burke said he believes lower energy costs alone could wind up paying for additional midrange storage area networks to be installed in remote locations to ease data management headaches.

Mark Sorenson, EMC's senior vice president of information management technology, said SSDs will play a significant role in the adoption of data de-duplication technology, which he believes will be "as ubiquitous as RAID someday."

Sorenson said SSD technology, particularly on disk subsystems, will be able to speed de-duplication software's ability to seek out and eliminate data copies because it has no moving parts as disk drives do, such as an actuator arm that must move into position to retrieve data from a disk platter.

John Webster, adviser at research firm Illuminata Inc., said EMC may not be taking into account that Fibre Channel drives will also drop in price and increase in efficiency over the next two to three years as well, adding their own competitive advantage over SSDs. Webster added that SSD technology brings with it longevity problems in that there are only so many times an application can rewrite data to the cells in NAND memory before they wear out and become unreliable.

"I think it's too early to jump the gun on this," Webster said.

There are two major types of solid-state memory: single-layer cell (SLC) NAND memory, which writes one bit per cell, and multilayer cell (MLC) NAND memory, which writes two or more bits per cell. MLC offers greater density and lower cost, but because it writes multiple bits per cell, it also tends to wear out faster, according Avi Cohen, head of research at Avian Securities LLC in Boston. One fix for addressing the wear level of memory is larger SSD drives that offer more area on which to write data, but with more capacity comes greater cost, Cohen said.

Another way of addressing memory life is something called "wear leveling," or the use of software to distribute data more evenly across the silicon so as to not wear out one area faster than another, and thereby prolonging the life of erasable computer storage memory. But wear-leveling software is still in its infancy.

Yet another issue facing SSD adoption is error correction, or the ability to fix errors caused by noise or other impairments during data transmission, which is more difficult to perform on more cost-effective MLC memory.

Donatelli said EMC is using more reliable SLC NAND drives and has added a lot of its own intellectual property to the drives to ensure that they are as reliable as the Fibre Channel disk drives used in the Symmetrix arrays today. "Part of the work we've been doing over this amount of time is working on things like write-leveling, working on the algorithms.

Donatelli said a lot of that work EMC performed on SSD over the past two years encompassed two areas: Symmetrix system changes to make sure the array could take advantage of SSD speed and IOPS capability; and drive reliability, ensuring it is reliable enough for the enterprise. "We've been working on this for two years. This is not simply take a drive off the shelf and plug it into the system and you're done," Donatelli said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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