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Why are so many enterprise SSD users sharing their thoughts with SanDisk?

This article originally appeared in SSD news
Many enterprise users - who wouldn't dream of approaching SanDisk to use its raw SSDs - seem more than willing to use SanDisk's enterprise SSD software (FlashSoft). Can SanDisk leverage this to transform itself into an enterprise SSD heavyweight?
Software is why more enterprise users are talking to SanDisk

Editor:- June 19, 2013 - SanDisk recently announced a new version - 3.2 - of its FlashSoft (SSD caching software) for Windows Server ($3,000), and Linux ($3,500).

New in this release is high availability support with low latency SSD mirroring for "safe write-back" caching. Improvements include:- larger cache sizes upto 2TB per cache and upto 8TB cache per server. Also the number of volumes supported by a single cache has increased from 255 to 2048.

Editor's comments:- I've reported before about my many past conversations with FlashSoft and my perceptions about the company from the days when they were one of the leading independent hot enterprise SSD software companies in the 3rd quarter of 2011 through to the first indications - about 6 months after the company had been acquired by SanDisk in February 2012 - that contrary to what I had expected from earlier acquisitions by SanDisk - there were signs that FlashSoft wasn't just going to provide another demonstration of Newton's law of the conservation of SSD momentum - translated to a marketing frame of reference - in which we should not be surprised to see what happens when a small enterprise SSD pellet fired at high velocity smacks into a huge consumer SSD cannonball at rest.

So when I spoke recently to Rich Petersen Director, Marketing Management at SanDisk - who had earlier been VP of Marketing at FlashSoft - I was quickly able to pick up the threads of these earlier conversations we'd had. And I got an illuminating update on the picture of how SanDisk is changing as a result of what it's still learning about the enterprise SSD market since having acquired FlashSoft.

I can't give you all the details here - because I covered 3 pages of notes during this ideas packed dialog - more than I have ever taken in any previous SSD company interview. Hearing about what has been happening in SanDisk and what they've been learning from their customers - and how they've been adapting those ideas to their SSD plans - I started getting that sense of easy familiarity I used to get when talking to some of the leading enterprise SSD companies.

It was a weird feeling. I had to keep reminding myself - this is SanDisk I'm talking to. And they don't have much to write home about in the way of enterprise SSDs. - But despite those handicaps they've been talking to - and learning from - all these enterprise users who wouldn't give them the time of day if it wasn't for this software.

So it looks like the Trojan Horse in SanDisk's enterprise SSD infiltration plan is built from 2 main planks.
  • The FlashSoft product provided the foundations of a very capable enterprise SSD software platform.

    And instead of frittering this acquisition away - as a tactical giveaway to merely sell a few branded SSDs faster (as some other SSD companies have done) SanDisk is using the FlashSoft product as a pivotal valued product in its own right. It's being sold - not given away. It has been getting continuing investment into its development and is playing a strategic part in seeding the enterprise grain into one of the world's leading flash memory technology companies.
  • FlashSoft supports leading 3rd party enterprise SSDs including products which are - or could be - competitors to SanDisk's own SSDs. (The business case for this was discussed in an earlier article.)

    I asked if SanDisk has a list of these products online. I was told - not yet - but it's coming soon.
The result is - many enterprise SSD users - who wouldn't dream of approaching SanDisk to use its raw SSDs in their enterprise projects - seem more than willing to use their enterprise SSD software and share their ideas about enterprise SSD problems and related experiences.

In a Eureka moment I said - "If I was being cynical I could say that acquiring FlashSoft is a brilliant and sneaky marketing way for SanDisk to be having these conversations and learning first hand from users the answers to - what do enterprise SSD users want? and how would enterprise users change what they do if they were offered different options? - instead of SanDisk wasting money on buying and analyzing dozens of SSD market analyst reports which at best - can only give a disconnected. partial and dated overview of what might be happening in the minds of enterprise users."

Here are some of the other new things I learned.
  • SanDisk eats its own dog food. Being acquired by a Fortune 500 Company gave FlashSoft an entree into many new applications within SanDisk itself. SanDisk has been using FlashSoft cached SSDs to enhance its own servers which are used in many critical parts of the business.
  • SanDisk wants the enterprise to be a bigger part of its SSD business. And while the company still has a very thin hardware enterprise SSD product line - it's been using the FlashSoft product - aligned to partnerships with other enterprise vendors such as NetApp, Dell and Virident etc to help build awareness of SanDisk in the enterprise SSD market.
  • SanDisk has learned that people often like the storage they've already got. And so while they can't easily justify ripping and replacing their SANs - the leveraging power of an SSD cache - which can deliver 3x as many VMs per host - makes a much easier SSD economics use case.
  • SanDisk says they've seen users re-evaluating and reviving once abandoned VDI projects based on the efficiencies and performance they can now see being promised by FlashSoft accelerated virtual desktops.
  • While the standard SSD workhorse of the FlashSoft environment will usually be PCIe SSDs or SAS SSDs - the ability of the product to concatenate separate devices of different types into a single logical volume coupled with the ability to assign different cache priorities to different SSDs means that users can also mix and match lower cost enterprise SATA SSDs into the mix.
  • Final quick notes... The FlashSoft caching engine is the same on all platforms. This release brings the Linux and Windows FlashSoft feature sets up to the same level. SSD capacity is dynamically allocated - which simplifies scalability. Writes to flash devices are disciplined by filters which reduce random write amplification - which - coupled with read caching has the beneficial spinoff that some SAN users can see upto 90% reduction in their SAN I/O traffic.
What's it all about? - Can SanDisk - a leading consumer semiconductor company - really transform itself into an enterprise SSD heavyweight? If you'd asked me that question 16 months ago - I would have said (and did say on these pages) an emphatic no!

When I learned that FlashSoft had been acquired by SanDisk I thought (and wrote here) - that would be the last we would hear of that particular enterprise SSD software company. I was wrong about that.

Can the tiny FlashSoft inject enough raw enterprise intelligence back into the giant which swallowed it - in a way which is both palatable and can change the way the giant thinks and behaves?

It looks like there's a lot of creative energy and resources going into that. And with the help of its business partners and customers there's a growing enterprise eco-system attaching itself to the SanDisk core.

You could say - all that's missing now is a full spectrum enterprise SSD product line. (And a track record.) But unlike other new companies who also want to get into the enterprise market - SanDisk doesn't have to rely on what the analysts say. They've now got their own unique window into the enterprise SSD user deep thought stack.
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