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EMC's Project Lightning embraces server-side flash SSDs

The opening day of EMC World Las Vegas 2011 featured a surprising launch of flash solid state on a PCIe card for servers from the world’s largest storage vendor.

LAS VEGAS -- Despite themes of big data and the cloud, the biggest surprise on the first day of EMC World Las Vegas 2011 Monday was Project Lightning, a server-side flash product that represents a new direction for the vendor’s solid-state drive (SSD) strategy.

Project Lightning is a code name and the product is still months away from launching, but it appears similar to Fusion-io’s successful PCIe flash card. Pat Gelsinger, EMC's president, said the company would integrate its FAST automated tiering software with the PCIe card to optimize data placement.

“EMC will enter the server flash business,” Gelsinger said during his keynote address Monday. “We’ll take flash and put it in the server so it acts as server DAS or server cache.”

During a press briefing, Gelsinger declined to say if the vendor is using a partner for the PCIe flash or developing its own ASIC. Intel is headed down the PCIe card path for SSDs, according to its roadmap that recently leaked to several IT publications. Other vendors have similar products on the market.

“This is an EMC product,” Gelsinger replied when asked about working with Intel.

We’re surrounding the server business, but we’re not going to get into what I call the 'naked server' business.

Joe Tucci, EMC CEO

Project Lightning is expected in the market later this year.

EMC is planning to expand its use of SSDs in its storage arrays as well. Gelsinger said placing flash in servers as well as in storage lets the vendor accelerate applications that require a small amount of compute power for a large amount of data, as well as those that need a lot of compute for a small amount of data.

EMC said it would qualify multi-layer cell (MLC) SSDs for its storage arrays this year, and deliver all-Flash Symmetrix enterprise systems by the end of next month and an all-Flash VNX unified storage system this year.

EMC began shipping single-layer cell (SLC) flash on its Symmetrix systems in 2008, and claims it has shipped nearly 14 PB of flash capacity in storage arrays since last year. EMC claims half of its VMAX and VNX system orders now include flash capacity.

EMC hasn't shipped MLC, which is lower-cost flash than SLC but comes with performance and reliability tradeoffs. Storage vendors have increasingly turned to MLC to try and spur SSD sales, which still meet resistance because of the price.

Other new products launched Monday at EMC World:

  • The Isilon NL-108, the biggest version of its nearline NAS platform, scales to 108 TB with 36 3 TB drives in one system and can scale to 15.5 PB with a 44-node cluster. Isilon also rolled out SmartLock, a policy-based retention software designed to prevent accidental deletion of data.
  • Atmos 2.0 has improved performance for object ingestion, GeoParity software for moving data across Atmos deployments, GeoDrive software that lets Windows users move data to the cloud and an Amazon Simple Storage System (S3) interoperability API that lets S3 customers use Atmos.
  • Three GreenplumHD appliances integrate Hadoop open source software for distributed applications with large data sets. The appliances run Hadoop as a virtual appliance or on a Greenplum hardware appliance

But Project Lightning received the most attention.

Flash on the server is a big change in EMC’s strategy,” said Ray Lucchesi, president at Silverton Consulting. “The questions are, how does FAST work with it and how do the server cache and the storage cache talk to each other?”

Lucchesi said putting flash in the server can ultimately help EMC’s storage systems’ performance but brings about new interdependencies.

“If you suck up I/Os at the server level, they don’t go to the storage system and storage performance benefits,” he said. “And you can have flash in different servers connected to one storage system. But having multiple servers may require cache coherency across the servers and storage.”

Surrounding the server

EMC CEO Joe Tucci spent a good deal of time Monday talking about the coherency of his strategy to push EMC’s technology deeper to the server and away from storage.

“We're not getting into the server business,” he said during a press conference. “We’re going to play in the server level in several ways. Obviously, [EMC-owned] VMware virtualizes the server. Now we will have a flash card at the server layer."

He added: "We’re surrounding the server business, but we’re not going to get into what I call the 'naked server' business."

EMC’s acquisition of data analytics vendor Greenplum last year was also a step outside of storage. Tucci tried to explain Monday why EMC’s trip to the intersection of big data and the cloud doesn’t mean it's taking its eyes off the ball in storage.

“Can anybody think of one company that’s become very big and very successful without going into adjacencies?” he said. “Almost all companies that have become big and successful have gone into logical adjacencies.”

Moving into what Tucci calls “adjacencies” isn’t a new strategy for EMC. Its acquisitions of document management vendor Documentum, server virtualization vendor VMware and security company RSA Security all brought it outside the boundaries of storage.

“EMC’s been moving away from pure storage for a long time,” Silverton Consulting's Lucchesi said. “They’re moving up the stack from storage to network to server, gradually adding more and more functionality.”

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