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EMC's all-flash benediction: Turbulence ahead

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Analysis A rising tide lifts all boats and the blessing EMC gave to all-flash arrays at EMC World will be gratefully seized upon by a string of established small players and start-up wannabees such as Pure Storage and SolidFire. But this tide could carry some boats into turbulent waters.

Shared solid state storage has been the preserve of a niche market, one where customers need an in-memory database for their financial arbitrage trading. Seconds, even fractions of a second, count when trying to make money from fast but small changes in market prices for financial instruments or whatever else can be traded on Wall Street or other exchanges. Disk latency is the enemy of such trading applications and DRAM and flash arrays from Texas Memory Systems (TMS), such as its RamSan products, have been the classic storage array product for the company, where lightning fast access from a large data set is the key to an application's success.

Another application area is national security, where the fastest-possible database lookup is needed by communication monitoring systems – whisper the Echelon name – and border control traveller identification applications. Now there are enough customers wanting such applications that EMC is going to offer all-flash VNX and VMAX arrays as standard configurations. The trend for primary data to migrate off hard drives onto flash drives is starting, creating more business for the established flash array players, opportunities for start-ups and problems for the hard disk drive array vendors.

We're going to cast our eye over the field and review the suppliers in it, and offer opinions about what how the established storage array suppliers will react. This is an area looking prime for accelerated development and events could happen quickly.

Shared solid state storage suppliers

TMS initially introduced DRAM-based RamSan products, hence the "ram" in the name, and then added a flash line of RamSans alongside the faster and more expensive DRAM-based ones. It continues to lead the area and its RamSan-630 has just posted whip-cracking SPC-1 performance numbers and price/performance numbers. No other supplier comes close in the SPC-1 rankings to TMS' product performance, for the moment. We think an EMC VMAX all-flash SPC-1 Kaminario makes the K2 DRAM product, for the same market areas that TMS supplies with its DRAM-based RamSans, in-memory database screamers. It is a mid-to-late stage startup, having announced a $15m C-round of funding in May. A flash version of the K2 technology is said to be in development.

  • DataRam produces the XcelaSAN array, a DRAM device, which sits in front of SAN-attached storage arrays and acts as a large front-end cache.
  • Nimbus Data has tried the all-flash route with multi-level cell flash since April last year with its S-class unified storage array. There has been an absence of independently validated performance data but a second version of the product has been introduced and Nimbus' pioneering might well pay off.
  • Solid Access went for a UNAS 100 all-flash NAS product, eschewing block access. That could be a useful differentiator in the months ahead.
  • Violin Memory has focused on shared flash arrays and is building a great relationship with HP as that company sells against Oracle's Exadata box. Both Toshiba and Juniper have invested in Violin, demonstrating that they see potential there which they could potentially exploit. There is an air of suppressed excitement coming out of Violin, a feeling that a tipping point is coming with sales about to rise substantially.
  • WhipTail has focused on serving virtual desktop images from its Racerunner Virtual Desktop XLR8r, which uses in-line deduplication.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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