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So everyone's piling into PCIe flash: Here's a who's who guide

Big names wave their cache cards like a banker at a cocktail bar

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Blocks and Files The PCIe flash card suppliers are heading towards a battle royale: there's too many of them for a commoditising hardware business.

There are at least 15 suppliers of PCIe flash cards, gear that tightly couples a wad of non-volatile NAND storage to a computer's backbone: EMC, Fusion-io, IBM-TMS, Intel, LSI, Micron, OCZ, OWC, Samsung (products coming), SanDisk, Seagate-Virident, STEC, SuperTalent, Toshiba (products coming), Violin Memory and Virident.

This is a ridiculous situation. As with the development of the disk drive industry, the winners will be those with flash foundry connections, good software and a strong distribution channel. And dedicated software is needed to make full use of that close coupling of flash and a blob of RAM cache.

Once the server retrofitting marketplace settles down from its initial rush, say in two to three years, PCIe flash will surely become a standard part of every server and the server suppliers' distribution channels. That means the market power will lie with the flash foundry operators as they lock up the system manufacturers' channels.

A software angle could be the link between server PCIe flash and backend arrays, be they all-flash or hybrid flash-and-disk. This will surely become an absolute necessity for standalone storage suppliers such as EMC and NetApp.

Here is a quick-and-dirty rundown of PCIe flash card suppliers and their alliances:

  • EMC - a potential powerhouse but it must link its software to backend arrays as soon as possible or server makers could freeze it out.
  • Fusion-io - software is the key and Fusion-io already knows this.
  • IBM-TMS - we're still waiting for IBM to add TMS flash to its servers and get busy on software driver front.
  • Intel-Micron - it owns foundries, has distribution channels and it's getting software.
  • LSI - no foundry link-up but potentially has a good distribution channel although it needs software.
  • OCZ - no foundry link-up and in crisis.
  • Samsung - can sell PCIe flash on the back of memory and flash chips to system manufacturers so it's potentially strong - but it needs software.
  • Seagate-Virident - needs a flash foundry tie-up and that could be Samsung.
  • STEC - its high-flying SSD business stalled, although it's now recovering, but it has no foundry tie-up so question marks remain.
  • Toshiba-SanDisk-Violin - a potential powerhouse.

There are five companies and company groups in the list above that seem better placed than the others, and the others better get big, find a niche or get out while they still can as the old business school mantra would have it. ®

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