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My software-defined life: Boss of MCS-flasher Diablo chats to the Reg

The flash DIMM software angle looks interesting

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Diablo Technologies now licenses its Flash DIMM technology to SanDisk, which acquired the licence through buying SMART Storage. So far IBM and Supermicro have signed contracts with SanDisk to use its ULLtraDIMM technology in some of their X86 servers but its likely just the beginning.

Just to complicate matters, IBM is selling its X86 server business to Lenovo. The Chinese firm, a server newcomer, will be promoting the application acceleration qualities of Diablo's Memory Channel technology-based method of putting flash chips onto DIMM cards and interfacing the flash directly to a server's memory bus, thus giving applications access to data faster (with lower latency) than if the flash were mounted on PCIe interface cards.

It seems to be an open-and-shut case that servers with ULLtraDIMMs will have an unassailable advantage in data latency terms over PCIe flash card-using servers and that, therefore, ULLtraDIMMs will take over a significant chunk of the current PCIe flash card market.

So far no other supplier has productised such a technology, although Micron seems close. What Diablo needs to do is help SanDisk sign up more licensees before any other supplier can arrive on the scene with equivalent technology.

We talked to Ricardo Badalone, Diablo's CEO, about progress towards this goal, and he said: "By the end of the year we expect to be on all the major players' servers. We're very confident of this."

That would imply that Cisco, Dell and HP will sign up to use the technology, and Fujitsu might also be a licensed user.

Could the MCS technology be used outside the application server area? For example, storage array controllers which are, of course, embedded servers.

Badalone said: "I believe the answer is yes. With storage appliances a major use case is emerging. Typically they use non-volatile memory to ingest data at high speed. Our commit latency can essentially approach that of DRAM. It would give them terabytes of low latency buffers instead of gigabytes. ... It's currently being evaluated by storage OEMS."

Ricardo Badalone

Ricardo Badalone

He said this a smaller market opportunity than the server opportunity. Also the storage OEM evaluation cycle is slower than the server OEM evaluation cycle for new technology. But he thinks it is a market that will emerge, possibly in 2015.

What about networking where switches and other network gear may be adopting X86 technology instead of proprietary hardware? He sees less interest here.

How will MCS technology evolve? Badalone talked about their being both hardware and software aspects to this, with tighter integration being the software focus: "We're now positioned as a low-latency paging device – essentially based on block transfer."

He intends that integration with cache lines will come to the fore: "You could allocate memory to an application, say 250GB, and cache lines being written could be automatically persisted."

You could ingest them at tens of gigabytes a second at DRAM-like latency, he adds. "With an in-memory database, changing the cache line will get reflected in persistent store immediately and, in effect, the cache line becomes persistent." You then get an in-memory database with automatic persistence.

Badalone said Diablo will work with ISVs to validate this technology concept and roll it out: "Initially we'll use the hardware we have. Then it will have new [faster] hardware in the DDR4 timeframe. It's quite close."

This looks like full transparent cache line acceleration.

Together with SanDisk, Diablo is looking to build an MCS ecosystem so that server hardware vendors can sell flash DIMM servers alongside and through ISVs whose software can take advantage of it, making a good pitch to customers who want applications to run faster while keeping their data safe.

If Diablo and SanDisk can get ISVs on board, that will encourage server OEMs to come on board, and vice versa, making it a higher and steeper hill to climb for any oncoming competitor.

The PCIe flashers must be aware of this and watching it. What can they do? Come up with their own flash DIMMs is the answer, and that could well mean talking to Diablo Technology to see if they can license the MCS technology too. That is if SanDisk hasn't got an exclusive deal with Diablo. Now that would be a devilishly tricky arrangement to circumvent. ®

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