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Flash Memory Summit shows SSD decisions require research

Storage pros are used to having to stick their heads under the hood to figure out the intricacies of storage techs, but they may not be so comfortable having to delve even deeper into the inner workings of their gear. But at this stage of its development and adoption, solid-state storage really demands that kind of scrutiny and due diligence before investing in the still pricey medium.

All of that was apparent at the 2012 edition of the Flash Memory Summit which concluded its run in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara Convention Center this week. The conference/trade show had tilted toward industry insiders and flash memory engineers in previous years, but for at least the last two shows, it has also begun to cater to end users. While the effort to widen the audience seems to be working, it’s still a nerdy conference with a fair share of technical sessions. The same can be said of the vendors exhibiting at the Summit. Many are well removed from end users, selling their wares to other flash developers in the solid-state food chain.

But even those flash business-to-flash business offerings can also provide insight for enterprise buyers. For instance, we met with a trio of Maxwell Technologies representatives—Jens Keiser, Dave Wright and Ray Ragonese. Maxwell was showing off the latest iterations of its ultracapacitors that are likely to find their way into a variety of solid-state implementations. Why should you care about an ultracapacitor? Easy—it’s the tiny bit of engineering on a board that can store electrical power and then feed it to NAND flash chips when the system’s power cuts out. That means an ultracapacitor-equipped flash device might be able to ensure cache consistency more effectively and thus make write caching in flash more feasible.

Similarly, Kam Eshghi of Integrated Devices Technology—more familiarly known as IDT—described how their new standards based flash controller for PCIe implementations could potentially lower the cost of PCIe solid-state devices. And he also presented IDT’s reference design for 2.5-inch form factor PCIe flash device. This form-factor would make it possible to have solid-state drives that use the PCIe bus but are externally accessible so that their front loading and hot swappable.

At HGST’s booth, the storage company announced that it was adding 12 Gb SAS to its line of 2.5 solid-state drives. They currently sell SLC and MLC flash drives, and they report that they’re seeing growing interest from integrators to produce slimmed down drives that stand only 7mm tall—a little less than half the current height. The smaller profile would also make it possible to stack two of these devices in a space that currently accommodates only one to create denser flash arrays.

Permabit’s contingent spearheaded by president and CEO Tom Cook pointed out how their “portable” dedupe technology—Albireo—is ideal for solid-state storage. It’s a convincing argument considering how so many system vendors are trying to squeeze value out of the expensive components in all-flash and hybrid storage arrays. Cook told us that their technology will show up in a number of products that will roll out in 2013.

Learning about the underpinnings of flash storage is still crucial to not only understanding the technology but for making good buying and implementation decisions. And this is likely to continue for some time as flash and its supporting technologies continue to develop at a rapid pace.

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