Big Blue's billion-dollar bet on SSD includes all-flash storage array

IBM rolls out FlashSystem all-flash arrays -- rebranded Texas Memory Systems products IBM acquired in 2012 -- as part of an aggressive flash push.

NEW YORK -- IBM this week officially launched its all-flash storage array platform -- acquired in 2012 from Texas Memory Systems -- and pledged to invest $1 billion over three years to develop enough flash to cover its storage, server and middleware product portfolios.

IBM rebranded the Texas Memory Systems (TMS) high-performance RamSan family as the IBM FlashSystem series Thursday, while integrating the devices with its SAN Volume Controller (SVC) storage virtualization appliance. IBM acquired TMS in October 2012 for an undisclosed price.

The FlashSystem 820 and 810 use enterprise multi-level cell flash, while the 710 and 720 devices use the more expensive and reliable single-level cell flash. All the systems use flash chips packaged in a high-density form factor.

The FlashSystem is IBM's first all-flash storage array. IBM offers its Storwize V7000, System Storage DS8870 and XIV Storage System as hybrid configurations, mixing solid-state drives (SSDs) with hard-disk drives.

IBM is hardly first to the all-flash storage array market. Startups Kaminario, Nimbus Data, Pure Storage, Skyera, SolidFire, Tegile Systems, Violin Memory and Whiptail have all-flash arrays, and some of them have been shipping for more than a year. EMC recently made its XtremIO all-flash storage array available on a limited basis, with general availability to follow in the second half of 2013; NetApp has a high-performance EF540 all-flash array and has previewed its FlashRay for more mainstream storage use cases; Hewlett-Packard sells all-flash versions of its 3PAR StoreServ SAN arrays; and Hitachi Data Systems is preparing its own flash controllers to use in all-flash arrays.

The high price tag of flash compared to spinning disk drives still impedes widespread adoption. But IBM executives claim flash can be more cost-efficient than spinning disk because it provides better storage utilization, uses less CPU cores and condenses the data center footprint.

"There is a perception that flash is too expensive," said Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBM's system storage and networking business. "Maybe you pay a bit more per gigabyte, but we are saying flash has reached a tipping point when you look at total operations. It's not about flash itself, it's about system optimization. We believe all operational information will go into flash."

IBM execs said the company will use flash across all its enterprise storage -- including its Scale Out Network Attached Storage and ProtecTier deduplication backup disk systems -- as well as servers and software. It also intends to use flash to build data analytics appliances.

"This is not just a storage play. It's not a one-trick pony. The focus is all-flash optimization," said Vincent Hsu, IBM fellow and chief technology officer for storage systems. "We are going to grow the product line. You will see it integrated into appliances for real-time analytics. In the future, all transactional data won't be on spinning media anymore."

HSU predicted that in three years, flash systems will pack hundreds of petabytes (PB) into a 1U device.

IBM also plans to build 12 centers of competency across the globe so customers can build proof-of-concept configurations to measure performance gains based on all-flash storage. Centers are expected to be operational by the end of this year.

IBM FlashSystem: High performance, high price

The all-flash storage arrays IBM acquired from TMS emphasize performance and are among the more expensive SSD arrays. A single FlashSystem rack scales to 42 nodes, holding approximately 1 PB of storage. The highly available FlashSystem 820 is a 1U node containing 12 slots with two all-flash cards in each, storing a total of 20 useable terabytes. A fully populated node, running at 450,000 IOPS, is $300,000. The high-performance FlashSystem 720 stores 10 TB of useable capacity with a cost of $20,000 to $24,000 per TB. A 1U node contains 12 slots, each holding two flash cards with a 512 GB per card.

The FlashSystem family has been integrated with IBM SVC so customers can pool storage capacity from multiple storage systems and do real-time compression, thin provisioning and snapshot replication, as well as manage tiered storage across the pools.

"We are trying to show how easy it is [to install flash]," Goyal said. "You get a step function improvement in your economics without a step function change in the data center. You are not changing the applications or the way you do backup and archiving."

Sprint uses flash to run apps faster

The pressure to increase the per-second throughput on certain applications is prompting companies to use small amounts of flash to solve throughput challenges. Sprint Nextel Corp. has less than 1% of its 7 PB SAN capacity on flash.

Karim Abdullah, Sprint's director of IT operations, said he implemented a TMS RamSan-820 system about two years ago after Sprint's EMC Symmetrix DMX system maxed out at 800,000 IOPS for tier-one data on an Oracle database.

"We went back to EMC and asked if they could do anything to make it go faster," Abdullah said. "The answer was 'No.' Then we looked at flash. We looked for hotspots and moved those hotspots on TMS flash and we saw a 45-fold increase in performance."

Abdullah said he plans to install nine flash storage systems in Sprint's data center for a total of 150 TB of additional capacity to improve the performance of its phone activation application.

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