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Top five solid-state flash storage news stories of 2013

This year, solid-state flash storage joined mainstream storage conversations. These five stories include technologies that are shaping flash use.

What better to describe 2013 than "The Year of Flash"? This topic generated many of the year's top storage news stories, from advanced technology announcements to market changing acquisitions.

And that trend looks as if it will continue in 2014 as we move beyond the question of "Should I use flash in my data center?" to "Where should I use flash in my data center?" and "What kind of flash should I use?"

Analyzing the almost staggering amount of activity around flash during the past year, we've culled our top five flash story lines from 2013.

5. Consumer-grade MLC flash overtakes SLC flash as the de facto enterprise standard

With significant advances in software cell management, many enterprise all-flash and hybrid array providers moved away from the more reliable and longer-lasting SLC flash technology to the less expensive but less hardy enterprise MLC (eMLC) and consumer-grade MLC technologies.

In May, solid-state developer Micron Technology Inc. introduced its first MLC PCI Express (PCIe) NAND flash card, a full two years after releasing its first SLC card. Janene Ellefson, Micron's enterprise SSD product manager, said "We are [moving forward] to the MLC side of the house and getting into the mainstream market."

All-flash array vendor Violin Memory Inc. released its largest capacity array in August. The Violin 6264 array scales up to 64 TB using consumer-grade MLC flash with 19 nanometer (nm) geometry and boasts a price of less than $5 per GB.

SLC continues to reach niche markets where reliability and longer life are essential, but those markets are becoming fewer as flash-cell management extends the life and dependability of MLC flash.

4. Solid-state disks (SSDs) are so 10 minutes ago. The future of flash storage is already here

While most of us were figuring out how flash works and where it fits in the data center, the really smart people were working on the next phases of solid-state storage.

The Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) Workgroup is working on a PCIe host controller interface that would standardize how PCI flash adapters interact with the CPU, applications and operating systems (OSes). If ratified and adopted, NVMe would allow storage vendors to use drives from multiple suppliers without having to manage different drivers for each device. It also has some performance and manageability improvements, such as support for multicore architectures and end-to-end encryption. Plan to see NVMe-supported devices in 2014.

Flash storage vendors have brought solid state into mainstream storage conversations by reducing costs to the point where SSDs can compete with HDDs on price. But, according to many flash experts, we are nearing the point where die sizes can't be reduced any more, and we've stuffed as many cells into an array as we can. That's why some companies are introducing 3-D NAND flash, which takes flash in a completely different direction, literally.

Samsung Electronics Ltd. and Micron have announced plans to build NAND flash drives with technology similar to the 3-D NAND concept. Today's NAND flash devices have one plane of cells stretching horizontally across the die. But 3-D NAND flash is built vertically. It looks more like a Rubik's Cube than a traditionally flat NAND die.

Micron and IBM announced plans in December 2011 to build a vertical Hybrid Memory Cube (HMC) that connect stacks of individual chips. On November 7, 2013, Micron and Fujitsu announced a partnership that will put Micron's 3-D HMCs in Fujitsu's next-generation supercomputer prototype with volume production in 2014.

Samsung announced on August 6, 2013, that it will start mass producing its Vertical NAND (V-NAND) flash storage, which can connect up to 24 layers of cell vertically.

Another technology that could alter the flash storage market is Diablo Technologies' and Smart Storage Systems' ULLtraDIMM storage boards that connect directly to server memory channels via the server's dual in-line memory module (DIMM) slots to significantly reduce latency. (Smart was acquired by SanDisk in August 2013.)

Crossbar Inc. announced its Resistive RAM (RRAM) technology, which the company claims can store up to 1 TB of data on a single 200 nm chip. The company says that RRAM delivers 20 times the performance and 20 times lower power consumption.

3. The traditional powerhouse storage vendors have been slow to enter the market

IBM Corp. added an all-flash array to its product portfolio quicker than any other powerhouse storage vendor when it acquired Texas Memory Systems (TMS) Inc. in August 2012. Ambuj Goyal, IBM's newish general manager of system storage and networking, discussed the company's flash strategy and the TMS acquisition impact in an interview with reporters.

In February, NetApp announced plans to build an all-flash system (called "FlashRay") from the ground up, but said it wouldn't bring it to market until 2014. In the same announcement, NetApp said that it would also add the EF550 all-flash array to its catalog, which it did on November 19, 2013.

EMC finally released its XtremIO all-flash platform on November 14, 2013, a full 18 months after acquiring startup XtremIO in April 2012, and releasing it to select customers in March 2013.

Other major storage vendors announced solid-state storage plans and strategies, but so far none have made much market impact. Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) announced plans to build its own flash devices in August 2012. Hewlett-Packard Co. began selling an all-flash version of its StoreEasy iSCSI SAN system in February 2012, but released its first array specifically configured for solid-state drives (SSDs) when it announced the 3PAR StorServ 7450 in June 2013. Dell became the last major storage vendor to offer an all-flash system in October 2013 when it released the Dell Compellent SC220, which is also available as a hybrid system.

2. Startups rule the all-flash and hybrid storage markets

The incumbents' lack of action in the solid-state storage market has given multiple startups a head start in garnering exposure and market share. The powerhouse storage vendors will have the advantage of installed disk systems, established channel programs and name recognition once they do jump into the fray, but for now, startups are grabbing a lot of the headlines regarding flash systems.

One of the better known flash storage vendors, Violin Memory Inc., not only continued its push into the enterprise market by releasing its largest capacity array -- up to 64 TB and 750,000 IOPS in a 3U box -- in August 2013, and introducing PCIe server-side flash cards in April, it also became a public company in September 2013 when it completed its initial public offering (IPO) filing and offered shares for $9 on the New York Stock Exchange. Early returns are mixed as the company reported less-than-stellar quarterly earnings in November.

Another flash provider that filed IPO papers, Nimble Storage Inc., will have to spend some of its cash reserves on legal advice as it was sued by NetApp in October 2013, which alleged that Nimble employees who used to work at NetApp stole confidential company trade secrets on the way out the door. EMC filed a similar suit against startup Pure Storage Inc. six days later.

And speaking of Pure Storage, the all-flash array vendor scored $150 million in its latest funding round announced in August, which brings its total capitalization to $245 million. The company said it plans to use the money to expand its operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. The scuttlebutt is that Pure Storage is planning its own IPO soon, as well.

News about other flash and hybrid storage array vendors includes:

1. The 2013 flash-storage buying spree was in full force in 2013

Startup storage vendors that jumped on the flash bandwagon early became money-spinning acquisition targets in 2013 as the market adjusted to accommodate solid-state technology in servers and arrays.

Flash-storage startup Violin Memory made the first flash-related acquisition in January 2013 when it acquired storage-area-network (SAN) acceleration provider GridIron Systems.

In June, the buying spree continued when Western Digital's HGST subsidiary purchased SSD maker sTec for $340 million to complement its own SSD business. The sTec acquisition added PCIe cards and cache acceleration software to HGST's catalog.

Western Digital scooped up two more flash-related companies when it bought server-based caching software provider VeloBit Inc. in July and server-side PCIe flash card and software provider Virident Systems in September.

EMC added storage pooling software provider ScaleIO Inc. in July 2013. Much like Virident's FlashMax Connect software, ScaleIO's Elastic Converged Storage (ECS) allows pooling and sharing of server-side flash storage across servers to eliminate the siloing of expensive PCIe card flash cards inside individual servers.

Cisco Systems joined the mergers and acquisitions fray when it surprisingly acquired all-flash array startup Whiptail Technologies in September 2013, and announced that it planned to add solid-state storage to its Unified Computing System (UCS).

Even existing flash providers bought other flash vendors. Fusion-io Inc., one of the market leaders in PCIe-based flash, used its market capital to purchase hybrid system vendor NexGen Storage Inc. in April. Fusion-io then released NexGen's technology as the ioControl hybrid storage platform in October.

The 2013 flash news stories had it all: Companies on the rise and some struggling to stay afloat. Plan to see more acquisitions and new technologies in 2014 that will improve flash device's manageability, performance and cost.

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So is. Nimble Storage and their upcoming IPO this week already irrelevant that they don't even deserve a mention? The future of the EF550 is very much in doubt with Netapp releasing the all FlashArray built from the ground up as they say, in FY14 but again not worth a mention?