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IBM, STEC seek to make MLC solid state an enterprise play

IBM is bringing STEC multi-level cell (MLC) solid state drives into the enterprise, and the word from STEC is that others will follow soon.

SSD supplier STEC today said IBM is using its ZeusIOPS MLC flash drives in the IBM DS8800, DS8700 and Storwize V7000 storage arrays. STEC manager for SSD technical marketing Scott Shadley said it marks the first use of STEC’s MLC in enterprise storage systems, but he expects other OEM partners to qualify the MLC flash soon. Until now, more expensive single-level cell (SLC) flash has shipped in enterprise solid state storage arrays.

STEC also sells SSDs through OEM deals with array vendors EMC, Hewlett-Packard, and Hitachi Data Systems as well as IBM and others smaller partners.

“We’ll see many more OEMs going forward with MLC in the first part of next year,” Shadley said. “They’ve been in qualifications.”

Shadley said IBM is replacing the SLC modules it previously sold on the three storage systems with MLC modules. IBM will sell STEC ZeusIOPS MLCs with 6 Gbps SAS and 4 Gbps Fibre Channel interfaces, and at 300 GB and 600 GB capacities.

While pricing varies among vendors, Shadley said the MLCs cost more than 25% less than SLCs. But that cheaper price has come at the expense of performance and endurance. Until the last year or so, MLCs were exclusively used in consumer devices while only SLCs were considered to have the performance and reliability for enterprise applications. MLCs can store two or more bits per cell and multiple levels of charge, giving it at least twice the capacity of SLCs but with slower write speeds and higher bit error rates.

However, vendors such as Fusion-io, Micron, Anobit, Violin Memory and STEC have worked to improve the write endurance and reliability of MLC flash.

In STEC’s case, it uses what it calls Secure Array of Flash Element (SAFE) technology to reduce component failures associated with MLC flash and CellCare technology to improve MLC’s endurance. STEC claims its MLC flash endurance can reach five years.

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