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Pillar adds solid-state disks to Axiom arrays

Pillar is making a new solid-state drive storage enclosure available for its Axiom disk arrays, while industry analysts wonder if customers are willing to pay a premium for SSDs in the current economy.

Pillar Data Systems today made its move into solid-state drives (SSDs) by unveiling an SSD "brick" for its Axiom storage system.

Pillar's Axiom arrays are built using a combination of "brick" capacity nodes and "slammer" compute nodes that scale performance and capacity independently. The new SSD brick will contain 12 64 GB Intel Corp. X25-E Extreme SATA SSDs.

Customers must purchase 12 SSDs in a brick. Mike Workman, Pillar's CEO and president, said this is because Axiom arrays already offer up to 96 GB of cache. "To offer a single 32 GB or 64 GB hard drive would be a silly thing for us to do," he said.

Pillar won't divulge pricing and performance details about the SSD brick until closer to general availability in June.

"Our version will be a lot cheaper than our competition because of the product we chose and the way we architected it," Workman said. "But it's still a pretty serious cost."

Workman estimated that on a capacity basis, the SSDs will cost approximately 20 times as much as a Fibre Channel (FC) drive but, as other SSD vendors have pointed out, the cost per IOPS can work out to be substantially cheaper.

Workman said exact performance details are too dependent on variables in the environment, like block size, to give a one-size-fits-all number. "There's all this detailed crap" that goes into determining performance in any disk environment, he said. "And everyone has a different mix of read/write ratios."

With that preamble, Workman estimated that the SSD brick could offer a ballpark 20,000 IOPS. "That can vary up to two or two-and-a-half times, depending on the block size and read/write ratio," he added.

Pillar's quality of service (QoS) software, which allows users to select different performance profiles and priorities for applications attached to the array, will support Axiom's SSDs.

Jeff Janukowicz, research manager, hard disk drive components and solid-state disk drives at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, said the software will be a differentiator for Pillar as vendors line up to offer SSDs. "Application-aware software like Pillar's will be key to helping SSDs reach broader adoption in the market," he said.

But Andrew Reichman, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, countered that having different QoS profiles available in the array doesn't necessarily help customers decide what data is most appropriate for SSDs. It only gives them the ability to divide the array once that decision is made. (Pillar also offers storage resource management and audit services for users who need consultation in their environment.)

Reichman was also skeptical about the 12-drive minimum capacity in the SSD brick. "They've said their price-per-gigabyte cost is lower, but for users looking at a new technology, I wonder if having to buy 12 drives at a time for SSD will be too much," he said. "I think it would've been wise on their part to also offer a half-populated brick as a cheaper option."

Despite a cost-per-gigabyte premium over FC drives, storage vendors have lined up to support SSDs in arrays or as Flash as cache since EMC Corp. first put SSDs in its Symmetrix arrays in early 2008.

Pillar Data Systems' Workman spoke about the disadvantages of SSDs in the disk array long before Pillar added this support in Axiom, arguing that the disk array controller in front of an ultra-fast medium was a bottleneck. However, in December, Workman said that while he retains his earlier reservations about SSDs not being best utilized behind a network loop, the company would support them this year.

Speaking with last week, Workman said Pillar now "refuses to get into the argument of where SSD belongs" and the vendor has Flash as cache on its roadmap.


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