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Western Digital/HGST updates FlashMax PCIe SSDs, cache software

Western Digital/HGST unveils higher performing FlashMax III PCIe SSDs and new ServerCache software based on enterprise technologies acquired in 2013; and demonstrates phase change memory at Flash Memory Summit.

Western Digital's HGST subsidiary this week unveiled higher performing FlashMax III PCI Express solid-state drives (SSDs) and new ServerCache software -- the first substantial enhancements to technologies the company acquired last year.

Western Digital picked up the FlashMax PCI Express (PCIe) SSD line through its purchase of Virident Systems Inc. The caching software came from VeloBit Inc. and sTec Inc. Western Digital completed its acquisition of HGST in 2012 and bought sTec, VeloBit and Virident last year. HGST was formerly known as Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

Ulrich Hansen, vice president of SSD product marketing at HGST, said FlashMax III's use of 20-nanometer NAND flash from Micron will help to reduce the total cost of ownership for the PCIe SSDs. FlashMax III SSDs, which support PCIe 3.0, also improve random read performance by up to 60% and random read /write performance by 30%.

FlashMax III drives will be available in capacities of 1.1 TB, 1.65 TB and 2.2 TB in the half-height, half-length form factor. HGST claims tests of the 1.1 TB and 2.2 TB models -- using full drive capacity and a 4K block size -- produced IOPS of 541,000 for random read, 77,000 for random write and 200,000 for random 70/30 read/write workloads. Read bandwidth was 2.7 GBps, and write bandwidth was 1.4 GBps, according to the company.

Hansen said FlashMax III represents the highest-performing product in HGST's PCIe line, in contrast to prior capacity-oriented products. HGST made available 4.8 TB SSDs with its FlashMax II PCIe SSDs earlier this year.

Primary use cases for FlashMax III SSDs include large, high-performance databases, online transaction processing and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). In many cases, the server-based SSDs can handle the entire data set, and they also work with caching software, Hansen said.

Hansen said FlashMax III pricing will not be available until the SSDs ship later in the third quarter. The product will carry a limited five-year warranty. HGST plans to sell the drives to server OEMs, resellers, integrators and large users, such as cloud providers and high-end enterprises, according to Hansen.

Company hopes to regain market share

Western Digital/HGST's raw NAND flash comes from partnerships with Intel, Micron and Toshiba. The company led the enterprise SAS SSD market in 2013 (with development partner Intel) but ranked fifth in enterprise PCIe SSDs, a market dominated by Fusion-io, according to Gartner Inc.

Jim Handy, chief analyst at Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, California, predicted most business will migrate to PCIe and perhaps to NAND on the motherboard. "It makes very little sense to put NAND flash behind an HDD [hard disk drive] interface. It's a case of hiding a light under a bushel basket. Recent speed upgrades of SATA and SAS try to address this issue, but these are Band-Aid fixes," he said.

PCIe SSDs reside directly in the servers where the applications run to minimize latency, but they are more expensive than NAND-flash SSDs. Hansen estimated a price differential of 20% to 30% between PCIe and SAS SSDs when endurance and other specifications are equal.

FlashMax III drives do not support non-volatile memory express (NVMe), a specification designed to improve performance and interoperability of PCIe SSDs across enterprise and client systems. Hansen said the mature FlashMax architecture predates NVMe standardization efforts, and HGST is "not in a rush" on NVMe given the "robust, field-proven" FlashMax.

Greg Wong, founder and principal analyst at Forward Insights in North York, Ontario, said Intel and Samsung support NVMe PCIe cards, and he expects more NVMe announcements this year. "Once the ecosystem --chipset, operating system -- supports NVMe natively, prices are expected to come down as multiple suppliers vie for business and volumes ramp," he noted.

ServerCache -- no warm-up required

The new ServerCache product became available Monday at a cost of $995 per server. The software can create an SSD cache of the most frequently used data without change to the storage infrastructure, applications or backup systems. The software runs on any server application hosted on a SAN or direct-attached system running Windows Server or Linux, according to HGST.

Walter Hinton, global director of field marketing at HGST, said ServerCache combines elements of VeloBit and sTec. He said VeloBit stood out with its performance and data reduction algorithms, but sTec caching software was easier to use and had better historical reporting capabilities.

ServerCache offers write-through and write-back caching as well as a new "warm cache" providing full cache performance immediately after a server restart without a warm-up period, according to Hinton. Another differentiator is deduplication of identical, similar, shuffled and shifted blocks, he said.

"We can put more data onto a smaller SSD, so you don't have to buy a super big SSD for caching purposes," said Hinton. "We can get better performance as well, and it has minimal CPU overhead with this technique. We take no more than a single core of CPU."

Hinton said the hottest use case is a single instance of Microsoft SQL Server. ServerCache cannot pool flash resources from multiple servers like some cache products, including HGST's Virident-acquired FlashMax Connect software suite.

"We expect that there will be two different [flash cache] categories," Hinton said. "It makes sense to have a single server caching technology for smaller environments. Cluster cache is for large clusters of flash in big operating environments like an Oracle [Real Application Clusters] RAC."

HGST has yet to update FlashMax Connect software since acquiring Virident. The company also said it will demonstrate high-performance SSDs that use phase change memory (PCM) this week at the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, California. HGST claimed the demo would deliver three million random read IOPS of 512 bytes each in a queued environment and random read access latency of 1.5 microseconds in non-queued settings.

Hansen said PCM drives can speed performance by 10 to 50 times, lower latency and improve endurance over NAND flash, but they're significantly more expensive and less dense at present. He estimated PCM is three to five years away from viable commercial products.

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