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Flash storage settles in high-performance niche

YOU NEED ONLY look at the tiny 4GB USB flash drive dangling from your keychain to realize that there are some real alternatives to current disk-based storage.

Indeed, there are a number of efforts underway that tap into solid-state technology to create nonvolatile alternatives to magnetic disks. The result is high-speed storage that barely sips power and runs cooler than anything that's ever set foot in a data center.

Solid-state disk (SSD), or flash, also costs a lot, especially when compared to spinning disk. So while these new storage technologies are ready for prime time in consumer and mobile gadgets, they aren't likely to show up in any significant numbers in data centers very soon. Still, some have carved out niches and made some inroads, handling mostly high-performance, ultra-mission-critical apps.

Texas Memory Systems' RamSan-400 uses SSD technology to provide up to 128GB of extremely high-performance storage. Compared to the 500GB and 750GB disks offered by traditional storage vendors, 128GB may seem paltry. But the RamSan-400 isn't run-of-the-mill storage, it's for users who already have top-end enterprise storage but still need more performance, according to Woody Hutsell, Texas Memory Systems' executive VP.

"For those guys, they can't buy enough FC [Fibre Channel] disks to get the performance they need out of their system," says Hutsell. And users pay for that performance. "It's outrageously more expensive," says Hutsell. "We have a 16GB unit and, in the U.S., that system has a list price of $36,000."

Besides cost, SSD is also limited by its small capacity points. Samsung recently announced a 32GB SSD that reads nearly four times faster and writes about twice as fast as a 1.8-inch hard disk drive while using approximately one-third of the power. But these SSDs are bound for devices like mobile computers and smart phones.

Nanochip, Fremont, CA, develops another kind of storage chip that's based on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS). Much of Nanochip's work follows IBM research and its MEMS project, code-named Millipede. The Millipede moniker is derived from the design of the chip, which has two parallel planes or wafers. One plane holds thousands of probes--or MEMS movers--that pit the surface of the other plane to store data, similar to the way recordable CDs and DVDs work, but without the laser required for phase-change processes. While Nanochip isn't yet shipping a product, "we're looking at tens of gigabytes per die to start with," says Gordon Knight, the company's CEO. As the technology advances, "in the future, we're looking at a die with 100GB on it," he adds.

"You can definitely imagine putting a bunch of these things together in a package and using them for servers and such," says Knight. But as promising as MEMS technology sounds, Knight concedes that it's far from being a serious threat to disk storage. "It would take a lot of our chips to compete with a disk drive."

--Rich Castagna




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