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SSD news - August 1 - 14, 2012

SSD companies mentioned in this news period:- Fusion-io, KingFast, Micron, Nimble Storage, OWC, Skyera, STEC, Violin Memory, Virident Systems
Skyera launches industry changing enterprise SSD rack

Editor:- August 14, 2012 - Skyera today launched its first product - a 1U half-depth 10GbE SSD rack with 44TB usable capacity ($131,000 approx), 3.6GB/s throughput and upto 1 million IOPS using under 800W electrical power.

Integrated software includes inline dedupe, compression, snapshots, clones and various management functions.

Skyera will demostrated the new Skyhawk next week at the Flash Memory Summit.

Editor's comments:- last week I spoke to Skyera's founder and CEO Rado Danilak and some key people in his team - which in addition to core members of the team who designed some of the early SandForce controllers - also includes talented and experienced people from other well known chip and enterprise storage companies.

Skyera make a big thing about their cost value proposition.

They deliver fast SSD storage at a system list price under $3 / GB (uncompressed) and about $1 / GB (with compression and dedupe). That not only beats best of breed SSD systems but seriously challenges HDD based storage too.

Designed from the ground up the Skyhawk can be summarized as using adaptive DSP, with big controller architecture (proprietary rather than an array of COTS open SSDs) and with an integrated software stack which screws the efficiency of reliability and data integrity as tight as can be - by intervening at multiple levels (high adaptive intelligence flow symmetry.)

In any given year in the SSD market there are maybe 2 or 3 industry changing announcements - which illustrate what the shape of the future could be.

Skyera's Skyhawk is one of those in the year we're already in. And would be just as significant if the launch had been delayed into next year too.

Here's some more stuff I learned from talking to Skyera.


Rado said Skyera has one strategic investor - which he didn't want to name right now. The company is mostly owned by its management. That gives them an incentive to design a product which can make money as soon as possible.

FPGA rather than ASIC - for Skyera's hardware controller

The FPGA versus ASIC tradeoff debate in electronic design goes back to the mid 1980s. With FPGA you buy a chip that's got arrays of logic and common functions already in it. You define what your FPGA does by programming the interconnections in a way that's similar to writing to flash. With ASIC you have almost total freedom to decide what functions your chip does - but the chips are made in a factory that's making a lot of other chips - not just yours. You're buying time in someone else's multi-billion dollar factory. There are set up fees, learning curves and queues involved.

Skyera implements its controller using FPGAs.

That gives flexbility (also explained to me as a factor by Holly Frost at competitor Texas Memory Systems - which uses both ASICs and FPGAs in different places - while Nimbus prefers to use exclusively its own ASICs and Fusion-io is still staying mostly with FPGA.

In a rack system - the recurring unit cost is not a big deal - whereas it is a cost disadvantage in a single small drive - which is why STEC made much of switching to ASICs in its enterprise SSDs last year. Where the VC factor comes back into the equation is that each design costs hundreds of thousands of dollars - and months of delay. So if you have the realistic choice of either FPGA or ASIC in the form factor and power budget - which is not an option if you're designing a 1 inch embedded SSD for example - then the FPGA route means you can ship products sooner with less initial outlay and your revenue stream can contribute to earning profits faster.

Having said that - my guess is that after their launch - if Skyera said they needed another $500 million or so to do something - like remodel the executive car park - VCs would rush in to supply the cars too. But Skyera probably doesn't need that much money.

Core SSD technologies

On the SSD architecture side I've already written about the strategic importance of large architecture, adaptive DSP, SSD software, tradeoffs between flash capacity and reliability and performance and the benefits of integrating them at a high level. So I won't repeat those points here.

Rado said he wanted to get the best performance and reliability possible out of "cheap crappy flash". He said if you use a traditional RAID 6 array - then the latencies start to mount up - and you end up doing 3 writes cycles to get the parity protection. That's bad for endurance and bad for latency too. He said that Skyera's way of doing RAID-like protection means that the write amplification for a 4kB write is an average of only a factor of x1.04. That's a 3x reduction on write amplification compared to arrays of 2.5" SSDs for example. There are many different levels in the hardware and software - where the self knowledge about the system is used to good advantage.

Their controller technology can be adapted to work with any flash. In theory they could populate production systems with the cheapest flash they can get and even mix up the sources in the same SSD and still get a working system. Nevertheless the company's deep knowledge of flash - means that (in my words) there's little risk of cooking the memory cells to get the performance. And they know which suppliers are better.

Earlier this year DensBits explained to me how using adaptive DSP meant that you could get 60% faster write performance out of MLC flash because the DSP gave you the data integrity when using shorter write pulses and lower energy - which also leads to better endurance. (See endurance multiplication wars.)

Anyway Rado explained - that once they decided that they had to design a proprietary memory array - they knew they also had to invest in the software layers to make it work within the enterprise infrastructure.

Internally their box is like an array of memory connected to a switch. In that respect - it's similar to the RamSan systems from TMS.

High availability

Skyera's initial system isn't a true high availability SSD - and although it has many essential enterprise features - this will limit the appeal of the product in some applications. Nevertheless, I know that many super users of SSDs would prefer to use their own cloud like wraparound software - and all they need is a low cost scalable rack which they can use as a component to build multi-petabyte SSDs.

Skyera said they see traditional enterprise SSD apps like analytics being a good fit for the launch system.

HA is in the product roadmap and has hooks in the system architecture. It will come later.

Business development

I suggested to Skyera - that given how popular their company had been with SSD readers while they were still in stealth mode - the problem they might have after this product launch would be too many inquiries. That would place a burden on marketing to filter out the type of SSD leads which were a good fit and those which were just curiosity.

Maybe we can recycle the leads we don't want and sell them to other SSD companies - said Skyera.

The SSD market will be watching Skyera with interest to see if stacking all these new technologies together for the first time in a system really works.

Later:- when WDC acquired Skyera they stopped supplying the Skyhawk racks which meant customers had to go elsewhere. But that didn't prove too difficult as the enterprise rack market was already warming up for the marathon of user independence and vendor consolidation.

OWC has new SSD upgrade for Mac market

Editor:- August 14, 2012 - OWC announced that it has a 480GB SSD upgrade option ($579.99 MSRP) for the MacBook Pro with Retina display - for users who need more capacity than the factory installed 256GB SSD limit.

SSD cliff coming to memory makers sooner than to HDD oems - that's why they're tired of waiting

Editor:- August 14, 2012 - Outside of SSDs there is no viable long term future for mass memory makers.

Years ago when I first started writing about that concept - what I had in mind was that SSDs would eventually become a more important market for high volume memory makers than supplying components as boot devices and traditional computer motherboard memory - because the memory capacity populating SSDs would become orders of magnitude higher than anything which the memory makers had ever seen before in traditional design slots. Also the profit - if there was to be any - would be inside the application dependent SSD - rather than outside the SSD party looking in as a merchant memory supplier to SSD companies.

In those days the SSD market was about 100x smaller in revenue than the memory market - so I knew the market transformation would take time - and it would be easier for smaller memory companies to transform into SSD focused companies sooner.

What has only become clear in recent years - is that there's another acceleration factor at work in the memory to SSD business transformation model.

It's that next generation small geometry flash memories (of the type which could compete in mass markets) don't work reliably as standalone components and in order to be used by anyone they have to be wrapped around with some kind of complex SSD-like controller technology. Even if you don't care about whether hard drives have a future or not - the SSD cliff is coming to semicos sooner than that. If you're a volume memory chipmaker - you don't have a future without SSDs in a time window which is quarters rather than years.

Investors get nervous when they read about that kind of thing - and particularly if they discover that the memory market has to re-engineer itself into some kind of solid state storage - much sooner than the message they were getting from the hard drive companies.

That's the reason you're starting to see SSDs starting to get prominent mentions in the financial presentations done by memory companies.

One recent example - from Micron - Micron's Flash-based Storage Vision (pdf) - tells you how they see the SSD market and their position in it.

Don't get too attached to the exact numbers in this document. The presentation under-sizes the enterprise market in my view. But it shows that the SSD market is getting serious attention at a higher level and in wider circles than ever before.

See also:- Hostage to the fortunes of SSD

Violin plugs some software gaps with Symantec

Editor:- August 13, 2012 - Violin Memory today announced its rackmount SSDs can now support snapshots, cloning, dedupe, replication and thin provisioning - based on software IP from Symantec. See also:- where are we now with SSD software?

FIO's results and various SSD market success factors

Editor:- August 10, 2012 - Fusion-io's revenue - in the recent quarter (ended June 30) - grew 49% year on year to pass $106 million, while revenue in FIO's fiscal year was $359 million (82% up on the year before) - the company reported today.

Editor's comments:- a lot of people ask me - what's the secret of Fusion-io's success?

I've tried to answer that question from many different angles - and you can see what I've said (on the web) by clicking on this site search link.

My working life in recent years has been spent exclusively focused on SSD companies.

Talking to them, reading about them, discussing their technologies, business plans, experiences etc. And, I have - as you can see in the SSD Buyers Guide - offered a variety of lists which you can rationally populate with the names of SSD companies by analytical measures which everyone would agree with.

But there's another list too- which I have in my head - which I've never written down, or published - and which is just based on pure gut feel and instinct.

I can place almost any enterprise SSD company into 1 of 2 groups.
  • those who get the SSD market - and where it's going
  • and those who don't
You might ask - Why don't I publish it?

Here's my explanation.

In the enterprise SSD Goldrush you don't have to understand where the enterprise SSD market is going. You can still get very good business results and satisfied customers by incremental and tactical advances in products (if you're a vendor) and projects (if you're a user).

My list of "who gets the SSD market" - works for me. But it might not be so useful for you.

And there are better shortcuts which don't involve such subjective judgements (on which not everyone would agree anyway) and which don't require any detailed knowledge of what motivates the thinking inside these companies. Because - and here's a sanity check - it's always the market which is the final arbiter of success.

That's why (and I can't say this too often) looking at lists like the Top SSD Companies is useful. It tells you which companies other people like you (who think seriously about the SSDs) are giving more of their attention to. I don't rank these companies. You do.

So it doesn't really matter what I think - at a gut feel level. Except when it comes to me deciding where I should be spending more of my time:- such as - which emails should I reply to? which phone calls should I take? and for how long? and which web pages should I see? Trying to convert this chaos into a coherent narrative - which might be useful - is the fun part and it pays for the cheese.

Beware of easy answers and succcess formulas in the SSD market. Few of them can stand the test of time. (Even mine.)

With the possible exception of this one.

"In SSDs - rules are made to be broken." ...from the enterprise SSD Survivor's Guide

STEC's marketing legacy still imploding revenue

Editor:- August 8, 2012 - STEC's revenue in the recent quarter was halved compared to the year ago period, and is 19% lower than the immediately preceding quarter - it was announced yesterday - and the company has set aside $35 million (approx) as a contingency to settle claims connected with share activities in 2009."

For many years I strongly criticized the company's marketing in these pages for its weaknesses in routes to market and tardiness in extending its technology into the enterprise PCIe SSD market.

Recently (June 18) I said I was pleased to see many signs that the company has made visible changes and improvements in its marketing. But years of neglect won't be cancelled out in 1 month or 1 quarter - and that's why this quarter's revenue trajectory still looks so dire in comparison to competitors like OCZ (54% SSD revenue growth) and Fusion-io (anticipated tomorrow - proved to be 49%).

STEC's CEO and Chairman, Manouch Moshayedi said in the company's release text - ""Less than a year ago, we began the strategic process to fundamentally shift our business model from addressing the SSD market solely through traditional OEMs to a model mixing OEMs with emerging SSD system vendors, enterprises and non-traditional end-user customers. In order to address the needs of large- to medium- enterprises, we have been building our sales and marketing infrastructure to cater to enterprises directly and develop our new vertical market strategy..."

See also:- STEC's ziggy zaggy meanderings in the enterprise SSD market - (2007 to 2012) - a narrative extracted from commentaries in past editions of the Top SSD Companies.

KingFast's new mSATA 3 notebook and fast erase rugged SSDs

Editor:- August 8, 2012 - later this month KingFast will be showing its new SSDs at 2 international events:- Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, CA and IPC & Embedded Expo 2012 in Shenzhen, China.

One of the company's recent products is an mSATA 3 SSD designed for for high-end Ultrabooks. While the other new product will be a rugged 2.5" SATA 3 SSD with fast erase.

Virident's new FlashMAX II

Editor:- August 7, 2012 - Virident Systems today announced it will ship a new generation of fast PCIe SSDs in September. FlashMAX II (pdf) has upto 2.2TB usable RAID protected MLC capacity, 103K random R/W IOPS (4kB 70:30 mix), and 1.1 million random read IOPS (512B), and <80µS random read latency (4kB) in a ½ length, low profile form factor.

Editor's comments:- I spoke to Shiva Shankar at Virident about the new product and the PCIe SSD market.

Virident sees this type of SSD as heading towards a distinctly different storage tier - and that's the direction of their software focus - even though in the present market the products have been designed so they can drop in and work with legacy storage software and VMs with minimum fuss.

From the design and marketing positioning point of view Virident has always placed great emphasis on application type symmetry and scalability symmetry. Shiva told me their performance scales linearly. That means if you have 8 PCIe slots and install upto 8 of the new FlashMAX modules - the available application performance will be Nx what you would predict from the single module results.

Virident also say that their performance doesn't degrade significantly over the lifetime of the product. They call this "Infrastructure Predictability" - and say it's on the order of 1%. In contrast - the performance drop off in some competing enterprise flash SSDs can be more like 20% to 30%. (This is a vulnerability in some flash SSD designs which has also been mentioned by STEC - as an argument in favor of their CellCare technology.

I asked Shiva if Virident uses adaptive DSP ECC techniques in its SSDs - and (as I expected) he said "no" (because it's a technique which has been deployed mostly to improve the cost of fast-enough enterprise SSDs (and components) - whereas Virident is in the fast end of the market spectrum.

Virident specifically says that its new product is 2x as fast as a well known competitor. See also:- the 3 fastest flash PCIe SSDs

Nimble expands on scalability

Editor:- August 6, 2012 - "Scalability" - in SSDs and storage - means different things to different people - and this is one of the themes discussed in my SSD symmetries article.

So I was curious to see what Nimble Storage meant by the word "scale" - as it's used more than 30 times in a recent press release from the company about a new range of rackmount SSD ASAPs.

A blog by Nimble's CEO, Suresh Vasudevan yesterday gives a more precise explanation of what they mean - which is in effect - you can scale capacity by adding hard drives or scale performance by adding SSDs - or do a bit of both - "without ever disrupting applications."

Nimble's systems span a much narrower range of performance scalability than you would see across the enterprise environment - so I'm not sure if scalability is the word I would have chosen to describe what they do. "Flexibility and convenient management within a useful application footprint" is probably more accurate - but doesn't sound so hot.

Fusion-io does a few new things

Editor:- August 2, 2012 - the performance and strategic importance of SSD software was reinforced in 2 recent announcements by Fusion-io.

Yesterday - FIO launched its new ION software - which is a toolkit for bulding your own network compatible SSD rack by adding some Fusion-io SSD cards and their new software to any leading server.

The concept isn't entirely new - because oems have been doing this with various different brands of PCIe SSDs for years and this is a well established alternative market segment for PCIe SSDs. What is new - is that it makes the whole thing much easier.

Fusion-io says this new software product "delivers breakthrough performance over Fibre Channel, InfiniBand and iSCSI using standard protocols." (1 million random IOPs (4kB), 6GB/s throughput and 60 microseconds latency in a 1U rack.)

Earlier this week FIO announced it was collaborating on getting interoperability in server-side flash and caching software with NetApp. It's easier now to write a list of major storage systems oems who aren't doing something significant with FIO.

Going back to SSD software...

In the 1990s Sun Microsystems created and leveraged the phrase - the Network is the Computer.

I have long thought an apt reinterpretation of that in this decade is "the SSD is the computer" - or maybe the "SSD software is the computer" - because the ultimate characteristics of fast computers are determined more by the SSD architecture which is installed - than by the same old CPU chips.

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