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SanDisk considers flash array after Fusion-io acquisition

SanDisk will expand its enterprise flash presence after Fusion-io acquisition, but analysts wonder about the fate of ioControl hybrid array.

SanDisk Corp. intends to sell the PCIe flash products it will gain by acquiring Fusion IO, but the SSD vendor hasn't decided whether to continue selling its ioControl hybrid SAN arrays, which could compete with systems that use SanDisk SSDs.

The Fusion-io acquisition, which SanDisk announced on Monday, will cost $1.1 billion, pending regulatory approval.

Steve Fingerhut, SanDisk's vice president of enterprise storage solutions marketing, said post-integration discussions have begun, but he declined to discuss the fate of ioControl or other individual Fusion-io products. He called the Fusion-io portfolio a "fully complementary product line" to SanDisk's line of solid-state drives (SSDs), as well as its growing enterprise flash business.

The Fusion-io acquisition comes less than two weeks after it launched its new high-capacity Atomic Series of PCIe flash drives during a June 5 event -- a move that may have helped position it as an acquisition target.

Fusion-io is the PCIe flash leader, and that will become a new market for SanDisk. But the ioControl systems, which Fusion-io gained by acquiring NexGen last year, use PCIe flash rather than SSDs in the storage arrays. Those arrays could directly compete with SanDisk OEM partners who sell SSD-based flash arrays. The ioControl arrays also include spinning disk along with PCIe flash.

Fusion-io executives indicated during the Atomic launch that increased OEM activity is crucial to market penetration of the ioControl system, said James E. Bagley, a senior analyst with Storage Strategies Now in Austin, Texas.

SanDisk may look to "put the ioControl intellectual property into an OEM deal, rather than compete with OEMs that use SanDisk SSDs," Bagley said.

Ben Woo, managing director of IT research firm Neuralytix, said SanDisk would be wise to abandon the ioControl brand and develop an all-flash array, "perhaps even a very densely packaged all-flash array for those enterprises that can take advantage of in-memory database capabilities, or where transaction times are a critical competitive advantage."

Fingerhut said SanDisk is "paying a lot of attention" to the emergence of all-flash arrays, and Fusion-io provides OEMs with more flexible configurations to design all-flash arrays or hybrid systems. "We can scale much larger by working through our OEMs instead of attempting to do it ourselves."

Bagley said savvy OEMs could take advantage of both Fusion-io's PCIe flash and SanDisk's ULLtraDIMM cards, a flash-on-motherboard implementation that requires deep integration with server manufacturers. SanDisk acquired the ULLtraDIMM technology in its $307 million acquisition of Smart Storage in 2013. Smart previously signed an OEM deal with ULLtraDIMM developer Diablo Technologies. IBM sells the ULLtraDIMM cards as its eXFlash platform.

Fusion-io customers should be better off with SanDisk taking over the company, said James Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, California.

"Installed products will be well-supported, and new shipments will have the backing of the SanDisk manufacturing machine," Handy said.

Handy said the two companies' product lines mesh well, and Fusion-io offers better caching software than the FlashSoft software that SanDisk acquired in 2012.

"SanDisk will gain a big advance on other companies in this space, with products that should allow it to expand not only its PCIe sales, but also sales of other SSD formats, including SAS and SATA," Handy said.

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