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EMC redefines its flash future

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EMC World EMC is starting to bet its primary data farm on flash, announcing multi-level cell flash SSDs for its arrays, all-flash arrays and, in a surprise move, server-side flash integrated with array side flash, code-named Project Lightning.

The company has already shipped all-flash arrays to customers who requested such customised arrays. It is now going to offer VMAX and VNX arrays populated only with flash, as standard configurations for customers with large primary data sets that need fast and low-latency access. All-flash VMAX arrays will be available this quarter with all-flash VNX arrays available later this year. All-flash VNX arrays were presaged by recent high-performance SPECsfs2008 benchmark results from all-flash VNX systems

EMC is also going to move to adopt 2-bit MLC (multi-level cell) flash, which is more affordable than its current single-level cell (SLC) SSDs and also slower and with a lower endurance. The MLC flash will, I understand, be 20 to 25 per cent slower than SLC but half to one third the price. SLC flash will continue to be available, complementing the MLC products, which will come from EMC-qualified suppliers using EMC designs. Both flash product types will be for enterprise applications.

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Additional qualifications are coming later this year, at the 600GB and 1TB capacity levels and, in this area, there will be both 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch format SLC product.

The company has been working on Project Lightning, its implementation of server-side flash, with a PCIe connection, roughly similar to the Fusion-io, Seagate, STEC and Virident solid state server products, but has chosen to qualify Intel's PCIe flash instead. Our understanding is that VCE, the Vblock-supplying organisation set up by Cisco, EMC and VMware, actually owns the Lightning development work.

EMC reckons this integration of server-side flash and array-side flash and disk will significantly increase I/O rates, storage tier capacity optimisation and reliability. Having write I/Os hit the server-side flash will enable the array software to get ready for an incoming I/O,for example, roughly analogous to a processor doing a pre-fetch.

It is our opinion that this is a revolutionary and potentially disruptive development that, if the storage performance improvements are demonstrable will discourage EMC customers buying alternative suppliers' PCIe flash cards for servers that connect to VMAX and VNX and other EMC arrays. It remains to be seen if the EMC Lightning PCIe flash scheme provides better storage tier optimisation than NetApp's Flash Cache.

Another possibility is that, if Lightning technology provides significant array advantages, other storage array vendors will hurriedly develop their own technology, thus putting a crimp in the stand-alone PC flash card supply business. We're thinking here of Dell, HDS, HP, IBM and NetApp.

Finally, EMC has set up a new flash business unit "to identify and exploit new market opportunities, new technologies and create and manage strategic partner and supplier relationships". EMC has decided that flash is a strategic technology and this move alone could cause all the enterprise storage array suppliers to re-evaluate their own strategies.

Server-side flash will be available from EMC later this year. ®

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