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IBM flash storage seeks wider appeal with FlashSystem array

New IBM flash storage includes 1U FlashSystem building block starting at 38 TB. The launch comes as IBM consolidates storage products around its FlashSystem flagship.

IBM continues to retool its FlashSystem storage to consolidate products and woo midrange enterprises.

Three IBM flash storage arrays were added this week to its FlashSystem product line, including the dense FS 5200 NVMe array designed for consolidating workloads on high-performance flash. The 1U FS 5200 building block starts at 38 TB of raw capacity and could scale to 1.7 PB, based on IBM's presumed data reduction.

IBM is in the midst of rebranding all its storage systems, with the exception of mainframe subsystems and storage, under FlashSystem. The FS 5200 headlines the new FlashSystem 5000 family. The updated storage system provides higher capacity and data throughput than its predecessor, the FlashSystem 5100. That is the result of falling flash prices, which allowed IBM to pack more capacity in a small footprint, said Eric Herzog, vice president of IBM storage channels.

FS 5200's base price is about 20% lower than FlashSystem FS 5100 predecessor, although Herzog declined to specify a starting list price.

Other FlashSystem additions include the 2U FS 5015 and FS 5035 hybrid arrays that combine SAS SSDs and spinning disk. The 2U FlashSystem models signal the phase-out of IBM Storwize arrays, which IBM folded into FlashSystem last year. IBM will support Storwize arrays in the near term, although IBM plans to orient Storwize refreshes around the FlashSystem family, Herzog said.

IBM FlashSystem lineup includes entry, midrange and high-end flash storage systems
IBM FlashSystem 5200 is a 1U NVMe all-flash array starting at 38 TB

FlashCore technology

FlashSystem arrays are designed on IBM FlashCore technology picked up from IBM's acquisition in 2012 of Texas Memory Systems. FlashCore modules are designed with quad-level cell (QLC) NAND flash, which stores four bits of data per cell. The FlashCore device fits in a standard FlashSystem appliance using a SSD standard form factor and NVMe interface. IBM makes FlashCore available in 4.8 TB, 9.6 TB, 19.2 TB and 38.4 TB capacities.

The refresh of IBM flash storage started last year with upgrades to the FlashSystem FS 7200 and FS 9200 systems -- larger arrays that combine FlashCore media with optional storage class memory. An integrated software stack on all arrays includes IBM Spectrum Virtualize and IBM Storage Insights AI analytics. IBM Spectrum Virtualize, formerly known as IBM SAN Volume Controller, allows customers to virtualize non-IBM storage as a heterogeneous environment.

The FS 5015 and FS 5035 arrays run a slimmed-down version of Spectrum Virtualize that supports three-site snapshot replication, automated tiering and transparent data migration. Those arrays, however, do not support data reduction pools, IBM HyperSwap dual-site active-active volume access, or scale-out clustering, among other features.

IBM said list pricing for the FlashSystem 5000 family starts at $13,600. That's for an all-flash base model FS 5015 array.

FlashSystem integration expands

All FlashSystem arrays support IBM-owned Red Hat's OpenShift container storage. As part of its $34 billion Red Hat deal, IBM also picked up the open source Gluster file system and Ceph multiprotocol software-defined storage.

Other standard software integrations include a Container Storage Interface API for writing data to Kubernetes-based storage, Ansible automation tools, and support for VMware and bare-metal environments.

IBM claims FS 5200 delivers 1.5 million IOPS in a 1U form factor. Now, IBM has to prove it can deliver, said Scott Sinclair, a storage analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

Vendors are always in a competitive push to get faster, stronger, better. As a technology provider, if you don't disrupt your own portfolio, then somebody else will.
Scott SinclairStorage analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

"The 38 terabytes entry point is pretty small by today's standards. When you factor in four-way clustering, IBM says this thing can scale to 32 petabytes, with data reduction," Sinclair said. "One of the interesting differentiators for IBM is [including] the Spectrum Virtualize virtualization layer. To me, that's the hidden gem of the FlashSystem technology."

IBM isn't alone in incorporating custome NVMe flash in place of SAS or SATA flash drives. Pure Storage uses its DirectFlash mesh cards in its FlashArray block storage system, which is built as an NVMe-oF architecture.

Other vendors tried and then abandoned the use of custom flash, citing the higher system costs as a key reason. Prior to merging with Dell Technologies, EMC Corp. acquired startup DSSD and used its flash technology to experiment with a server-based flash appliance that promised blazing speed, only to shelve the project less than one year later.

Similarly, Hitachi Vantara recently switched its Virtual Storage Platform all-flash array back to standard drives and hardware, after starting down a path to populate the arrays with its custom-designed flash modules.

IBM lags in storage market

IBM's market share in external storage systems trails Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and NetApp, according to an IDC storage market analysis published in December. It is tied with Hitachi Vantara, which only recently reasserted itself in the enterprise market after focusing mostly on commercial storage systems the last few years.

By upping capacity and performance on its entry-level FlashSystem, Sinclair said he expects IBM will try to increase performance on the high-end FlashSystem arrays as well.

"Vendors are always in a competitive push to get faster, stronger, better. As a technology provider, if you don't disrupt your own portfolio, then somebody else will," Sinclair said.

Herzog said the revamped IBM FlashSystem models will be generally available in March and will support IBM Cloud Satellite. That's IBM's analogue to Amazon Outposts, which allows customers to run Amazon EC2 instances on local hardware. IBM bills Cloud Satellite as a way for organizations to build and launch cloud services that can be managed across cloud and physical domains.

Enterprise Strategy Group is a division of TechTarget.

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