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EMC pushes out XtremIO flash array, more PCIe flash

EMC makes its XtremIO all-flash array available on a limited basis, also adds eMLC PCIe server-side flash cards and rebrands VFCache.

EMC Corp. clarified its flash strategy today, launching limited availability of its XtremIO all-flash array, adding enterprise multi-level cell PCI Express cards and rebranding its caching software.

XtremIO is the flash array platform EMC acquired from stealth startup XtremIO for $430 million in May 2012. EMC previewed the system under the code name Project X last summer and today said it is available for select customers -- mostly those who were in the beta program. General availability for the array is set for later this year.

EMC, which moved into the server-side flash market with its VFCache product last year, rebranded its PCI Express (PCIe) flash cards as the XtremSF family. SF stands for Server Flash. EMC added enterprise multi-level cell (eMLC) cards in 550 GB, 700 GB, 1.4 TB and 2.2 TB capacities to go with its 350 GB and 700 GB single-level cards, which launched for VFCache last year. EMC also rebranded the VFCache software as XtremSW.

EMC has not had an all-flash array until now, although it offers its main storage systems as hybrid arrays, which mix solid-state drives (SSDs) and hard drives.

"Flash can be deployed in multiple ways, depending on the workload and application, and what the customer wants to achieve from a cost perspective," said Barry Ader, general manager of EMC's flash business unit. "That might mean putting flash in the server, an all-flash array or a flash-optimized hybrid array.

"We don't see flash as a one-size-fits-all technology. We plan on leading all of these categories."

EMC's all-flash array

The XtremIO array is made up of 5u X-Bricks. Each X-Brick contains 7 TB of MLC flash before compression, and can be clustered in two- or four-brick nodes. Josh Goldstein, EMC's VP of marketing and product management for flash, said performance scales linearly as bricks are added into the cluster.

EMC claims the scale-out array has sub-millisecond response times and can achieve 250,000 IOPS of 4KB random read performance with one X-Brick, 500,000 IOPS with two X-Bricks and 1 million IOPs with four X-Bricks. The published 4KB random write performance is 100,000 IOPS with one X-Brick, 200,000 IOPS for two X-Bricks and 400,000 IOPS for four X-Bricks.

XtremIO arrays include inline data reduction, thin provisioning and writeable snapshots as part of the software stack. Unlike other EMC arrays, there will be no additional licenses for the software features.

"The magic is all in the software stack," Ader said of the XtremIO array. "It's a scale-out design that is inherently load-balanced. Data is laid out exactly where it needs to be from the second it is taken into the array. It equally leverages resources of every SSD and every controller for I/O operations."

The X-Bricks are connected by InfiniBand, and support Fibre Channel and iSCSI connectivity to servers.

Goldstein said XtremIO arrays have been in customer trials for more than a year, dating to before XtremIO was acquired. Customers in the trial program can purchase the product now, along with selected other customers with applications requiring high random I/O performance. Those applications include online transaction processing databases, server virtualization and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

EMC isn't first to market with an all-flash array. Startups selling all-flash arrays includes KaminarioNimbus Data, Pure Storage, Skyera, Tegile Systems, Violin Memory and Whiptail.

IBM also sells flash systems it acquired from Texas Memory Systems; Hewlett-Packard offers all-flash 3PAR StorServer arrays; and NetApp has an EF540 flash array for high performance computing. NetApp has also previewed a FlashRay array for more mainstream use, and Hitachi Data Systems is also preparing its internally developed flash array.

Without an all-flash array, it has been impossible for EMC to make its case as having flash everywhere.

"They've taken their time to make sure XtremIO works well and they've hardened it, but the important thing is to get it out there," said Ray Lucchesi, president of Broomfield, Colo.-based Silverton Consulting Inc.

New PCIe form factors and partner

EMC does not manufacture PCIe cards, but rebrands them from OEM partners. Micron and LSI were its partners for the VFCache release. For XtremSF, industry sources said EMC has added Virident Systems cards. Ader said EMC isn't disclosing its partners for the new cards, and its partners may change over time. But the specs for the new MLC cards match Virident's FlashMax II cards, which suggests Virident is the primary partner for the new XtremSF devices.

The XtremSF 550 GB and 2.2 TB PCIe cards are available today, with the 700 GB and 1.4 TB cards due later this year.

Name change for VFCache, death to 'Project Thunder'

The VFCache software is now called XtremSW Cache, and Ader said it is the first of a suite of caching software for EMC flash products. EMC has also scrapped "Project Thunder," the code name for a shared storage device the vendor announced when it delivered VFCache. Ader said the Project Thunder product is no longer necessary because of the capabilities of the XtremIO array and XtremSF products.

XtremSW Cache can accelerate any applications running on XtremSF cards. XtremSW Cache 1.5 -- released last year -- performs write-through caching and deduplication for servers running Windows, Linux and VMware.

The application supports one server connected to one storage array, but Ader said EMC will add cache coherency to the software to allow multiple servers running XtremSW to talk to each other for high availability; that clustering support will be added first to servers running Oracle RAC. EMC's roadmap also includes the ability to pool flash on servers so they can be managed as a single entity.

As for Project Thunder, Ader said: "XtremIO arrays and XtremSF take care of all the use cases Thunder was designed for. We're leveraging Project Thunder IP and will use it through the Xtrem family, but Project Thunder is superseded by XtremSF and XtremIO."

It's more than just the flash

Experts say the vendors with the best flash systems will be those who integrate all of the hardware and software across many integration points.

"EMC's flash strategy is more complete than other vendors," said Ben Woo, managing director of tech consultant Neuralytix. "It's not about the hardware; it's about the software and the integration along the data flow. Hardware is easy; flash arrays are a dime a dozen; PCIe is a dime a dozen. It's what you do with all of that. Any flash strategy is not complete if it doesn't go full circle with software, storage and networking."

According to Lucchesi: "NetApp, HDS and EMC all have the same vision. They want software to control where the hot data resides. The expectation is to someday have software that controls hot data in whatever NAND you have out there in server or storage."

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