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Who's who in SSD?

It's IBM Jim - but not as we know it

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor

In January 2014 IBM made 2 product announcements about enterprise SSDs.

One about a new SAN compatible fast rackmount SSD, the other was about a new server motherboard based SSD acceleration option using memory channel flash SSDs which plug into DRAM DIMM sockets - as an alternative to long established PCIe SSDs.

Although both these announcements were anticipated - and were based on evolutionary developments of technology products which had been written about in our SSD news pages in the year before - what I learned in conversations with product evangelists for each type of technology shed new light on IBM's thinking and competence as a business entity in the enterprise SSD market.

These articles below - originally appeared in the SSD news pages on
...... SSD market history

Hostage to the fortunes of SSD

flash wars in the enterprise - 2004 to 2013

SSD utilization ratios and the software event horizon
image for ULLtraDIMM IBM article
sizing the scale of market for ULLtraDIMM SSDs
Editor:- January 21, 2014 - On the face of it the raw text of SanDisk's announcement yesterday - confirming what most of us already suspected (IBM's new eXFlash DIMMs are indeed rebranded SanDisk ULLtraDIMM SSDs) didn't add materially to the sum of human knowledge about SSDs - but in a conversation yesterday afternoon with Esther Spanjer Director of Marketing at SanDisk I got some interesting new insights into how the memory channel SSD Trinity (IBM, SanDisk and Diablo Technologies) publicly think about this new proposition.

cost - Esther didn't really want to discuss the detailed market price per terabyte of ULLtraDIMMs - but it's clear that SanDisk is comfortable with a top level analysis which for simplicity starts with assuming that a terabte of fast PCIe SSD (from say Virident or Fusion-io) costs about the same as a terabyte of fast flash DIMM SSD.

Commencing from that assumption IBM/SanDisk/Diablo are saying that users can get lower system costs - in high end virtual desktops - using flash DIMMs - because they support about 2x as many users in each server as industry standard PCIe SSDs. Contributory factors are that ULLtraDIMMs have lower latency, and also incur a lower DRAM footprint.

The stinger in the tail is that the ULLtraDIMM solution uses 19nm flash (due to adaptive R/W) - whereas all the ultrafast PCIe SSDs use more expensive traditionally managed flash memory - which tilts the balance in cost comparison roadmaps.

Esther also drew my attention to 2 interlinked performance aspects of the ULLtraDIMM architecture (which I would describe as SSD symmetry characteristics) which intrinsically lend themselves better to some types of applications. These are:-
  • deterministic latency:- SanDisk has some benchmark results which show that its ULLtraDIMM latency has low jitter - compared to some competing PCIe SSDs.

    SanDisk's SSD isn't unique having this characteristic. But what is unique is being able to maintain this at a latency which is 2x to 3x better than PCIe SSDs. This opens up new market applications - for motherboard based SSD acceleration which previously had been restricted to more expensive FC RAM SSDs.
  • scalability:- Esther said that the IOPS and aggregate throughput of ULLtraDIMM SSDs scales almost linearly as additional modules are added to a server. (This had been one of the original architecture intentions stated by Diablo a year earlier.)

    Esther said the 2 things which make it easier for ULLtraDIMM SSDs to do this are:- the higher performance ceiling of the DRAM bus in servers compared to PCIe, and the fact that the memory channel doesn't get interrupted and throttled in the same way as PCIe lanes by other I/O devices in the same system.

    (SanDisk's ULLtraDIMM SSDs aren't unique in satisfying this desirable trait of performance scalability in motherboard acceleration however, despite the fact that their selected benchmark comparison product suggests otherwise.)
Another thing we touched on was flash memory supply issues.

As SanDisk's ULLtraDIMM SSDs are single sourced - it's reasonable to ask what would happen if IBM ramped up its demand for these products?

That looks to me like a situation where being part of a large flash memory maker is an advantage - compared say to being a small SSD startup at the end of a supply chain. My guess is that if IBM demand for flash DIMMs ramped in the forseeable market environment (in which fab capacity for all flash is finite) - then SanDisk would probably prioritise this higher value enterprise SSD product compared to allocating flash chip capacity to lower margin consumer outlets.

That leads on to the question of - how much revenue will this ULLtraDIMM SSD bring to SanDisk in the next 18 months?

I didn't discuss that particular question with Esther. - But it's an interesting thought experiment.

My thinking goes something like this.

I begin my recipe by adding together the combined historic revenue of some comparable high performance PCIe SSD companies (for example Fusion-io plus Virident). Let's unitize this raw ingredient and call it "one".

Next come some scaling factors. (Yours may be different.)

We need to take into account and interpret the market success that IBM disclosed recently in its rackmount SSD announcement and also factor in an adjustment for market-receptiveness for new SSD server solutions which promise to cost less than previous solutions, while being offered from a "safe supplier" (and which don't force users to learn new software).

Toss these factors into your market model blender and whirr gently for about 30 seconds - remembering to screw the lid on tightly.

Then I think a modest ramp up revenue frothing model for this type of product would look like "three" (3x the number you started with) but "five" or higher might not be too wild either.

Remember this is only a starting point. Because if you assume instead that IBM isn't the only channel for these products - and may not even prove to the biggest route to market then you need to go back to the assumptions cupboard and get a bigger blender.

But let's stay with the simple IBM case for now.

How would all that impact competitors?

server competitors?

Esther said IBM thinks this technology makes IBM more competitive than other server companies in high end markets while also being aware of the inevitably looming reality that SSD enhanced servers reduce the number of servers that users need. (To do the same things they did before.)

SSD competitors? - (This is my initial assessment.)

The total market for SSD enhanced servers is growing more complex as new SSD software vendors are enabling new architectural uses of servers - software defined storage being just one example. As I said in 2011 - the SSD market is changing from a world in which few servers had SSDs inside to a world in which all new servers are enhanced by SSDs. As users have diverse business needs - these trends can only be satisfied by an equally diverse range of systems - in which SATA SSDs, PCIe SSDs and memory channel SSDs all play a part.

In the short term (1 year from general availability) memory channel SSDs - like SanDisk's ULLtraDIMM SSDs - will take part of the market previously occupied by fast PCIe SSDs and some of the market previously satisfied by very fast rackmount SSDs. But they cannot replace all these functions at the present time (due to capacity limitations, physical proximity / distance constraints and high availability considerations - just to mention a few factors).

On the other hand - by enabling 10TB class memory as a commodity in servers - the new SSDs will also enable new applications which were previously impossible or uneconmic.

Overall - I think that in the next few years (while being vulnerable to the same disruptive revenue shrinkage effects of improved SSD utilization ratios - which I discussed the SSD software horizon and which can affect all vendors) the aggregate impact of the ULLtraDIMM SSD market should be viewed as being mostly additive to market revenue in a growing enterprise SSD space rather than being cannibalistic.

And I'm confident that will attract new competitors in the memory channel SSD space - either by alternative competing designs, new licensing options for Diablo's memory IP, or new server designs in which the flash controller management is designed into the stahdard motherboard.

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Micron doesn't currently have a low latency, high capacity, flash DIMM SSD technology platform in its product line yet. But I think it's inevitable that Micron will have to publicly address this product gap / opportunity / threat to maintain confidence in its server customer base. Clearing the patent and IP decks in readiness for this may have been one of the factors in the December 2013 patent deal with Rambus.
the Top SSD Companies in Q4 2013


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image for IBM rackmount article
IBM shows off what's it's been doing with the RamSan rackmount SSD product line it acquired from TMS - and also launches first memory channel SSD based servers
Editor:- January 16, 2014 - For most of the previous decade (2000 to 2009) Texas Memory Systems was THE company which competitors aspired to match in market position when it came to fast rackmount SSDs.

In the early part of this decade (2010 to 2012) TMS lost its monopoly on rackmounts as it inevitably had to share the expanding market with a lot of other companies - starting with Violin (which overtook TMS in brand strength in 2011) and then other companies like WhipTail, Kaminario, Pure Storage, Nimbus and Skyera which had all established strong market recognition by the end of 2012.

But in those latter years (from 2009 onwards) not only was TMS competing against all those newbie rackmount vendors - but it was also engaged in another hotly contested part of the enterprise SSD market in fast PCIe SSDs - where its product line was trying to find a place somewhere in the narrowing gaps between Fusion-io and Virident.

Then a year ago - in January 2013 - IBM completed the acquisition of TMS (which had been announced in August 2012) and since then we haven't heard much about these products apart from a few glimpses - which enabled us to observe that TMS's rackmount products had been retained and renamed - while their PCIe products were quietly end of lifed.

This week - among other things - IBM has launched a new fast rackmount SSD family - whose controller architecture is effectively an enhanced adaptation of TMS's 8th generation RamSan with some tweaks to incorporate newer memory, iron out some RAS wrinkles (you can now change everything inside from the front or back - without sliding the rack out) and a big investment to present a software friendly face.

The new software capabilities are being done by products which are being offered as external-to-the-box unbundled subsystems (control enclosures) for those who want them. This means that the performance and efficiency of the raw flash array isn't compromised in any way.

IBM's new SSD box (a 2U HA 16GB FC fast rackmount SSD with upto 48TB usable capacity, priced at $683K approx list) is called the IBM FlashSystem 840.

Earlier this week I spent an hour talking about this new product with Woody Hutsell and Levi Norman - who are both now back in the IBM branded TMS fold having both sampled the delights of some other leading SSD companies in recent years. Woody wrote about his experiences in a recent blog.

As I've known both of them for many years - I couldn't help but start by saying - "This feels like one of those movies - where they decide to make a sequel many years after - but all the actors look much older. It's lucky for us this conversation isn't going out on YouTube."

You can get a flavor of what IBM thinks it's doing with this new product - and more details in its briefing document (pdf) - and I won't repeat much of that detail here.

click to see pdf

Woody said "It's interesting to me how much attention the flash operation is getting within IBM's storage organization."

He went on to say that IBM's big commitments to flash such as the $1 billion investment announced last April are seen within IBM as popular actions "which are important as we need to compete." As a result - many competent people (in IBM) want to be a part of the flashsystems effort.

Anther change in scale since TMS became part of IBM is that the size of the development team for the flash systems rackmount has quadrupled.

Sales are good too. IBM has shipped over 1,500 of these flashsystems. In effect Woody said this was limited by the fact that for 3 quarters IBM shipped everything they had planned to make.

Woody said he thought that this alone - even without all the other SSDs which IBM was selling into the enterprise market meant that IBM was probably on its way to be one of the biggest vendors in the market.

I said - a dominant market share in enterprise flash in 2014 might look like 5 or 10 per cent as there are hundreds of companies in the market. - We'll have to see how things work out.

But my guess is that with a few assumptions about density, channels etc this means this rackmount IBM product line has possibly been generating about $500 million of revenue in the past year - which explains where some of the revenue missing from competitors' reports may have gone to.

Something else which appeared in the briefing paper singing the praises of IBM's expanding universe of enterprise flash product offerings - eXFlash DIMMs - sounded to me like just another name for SanDisk's memory channel SSDs (later confirmed to be the case) which appeared in another announcement IBM server announcements today - see footnotes for more.

What's my final take on this? (FlashSystem 840 announcement)

IBM is now the company to make comparisons with if you're looking for fast rackmount SSDs with some high availability options. Particularly if you're working in a complex environment - are a big customer and think you will be reassured by the availability of compatible products and pre sales technical sales support.

IBM's density - in terms of rack units needed to build a petabyte SSD - is better than some other fast systems - but remains an order of magnitude less efficient than Skyera - due to the difference between IBM's use of eMLC compared to Skyera's claimed ability to use TLC due to adaptive controller architecture - which is 2 generations (4 years) ahead of what's used in this particular IBM box. (Having said that - IBM does already use some degree of adaptive flash SSD technology in other systems - by virtue of the SSDs it designed in from SMART.)

Going back to scary Skyera - "On the other hand" - I said to Woody - "Skyera doesn't have the same HA or software in place yet. But not everyone needs all these features."

Overall - for competitors in the same high performance and reliability class as this new IBM box (which includes companies like Violin, Fusion-io etc) - IBM can still be beaten on price. It was ever thus.

Footnotes - IBM's first memory channel SSD servers

In another IBM SSD announcement today (alluded to above) about its new server architecture which leverages memory channel SSDs - and making a comparison with PCIe SSDs - IBM said - "Our evaluators are seeing 5-10 microseconds write latency for eXFlash DIMMs in preliminary testing vs. 15-19 microseconds latency for PCIe-based flash storage from Fusion-io, Micron, and Virident, and 65 microseconds latency for Intel S3500 and S3700 SSDs."

We've seen increasing granularity of detail emerge about the system characteristics of memory channel SSDs emerging in a trickle of announcements, and experimental user reports in the past year. Now that the new flash DIMM SSD products are becoming generally available - there will soon be better clarity on real world costs and performance.
a classic ad from SSD market history
RamSan-210 - "World's Fastest Storage"
from Texas Memory Systems

(ad appeared here in 2002)
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"I had the benefit of the brick wall of ignorance. Not knowing what couldn't be done."
Skyera's CEO, in the article - scary Skyera
SSD ad - click for more info
We've all seen new companies launching SSD software and pitching for the enterprise with products which are little more than spruced up versions of "hello SSD world!"
(interview with Maxta)