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sauce for the SSD box gander

Nimbus enters SAS SSD controller market

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - August 10, 2017
If you were to look at a web archived version of the list of SAS SSD makers here on you'd see that Nimbus Data Systems has been included in that list ever since 2010. That having been the result of a conversation I had with Nimbus's CEO and founder Thomas Isakovich in which he told me they made their own SSDs for use in their arrays.

As I remember it Tom's thinking was that they wanted the SAS SSDs to be well behaved denizons of fault-tolerant arrays.

I must admit I had been wondering recently if I should edit the list on that page and prune it down from a list of historic SAS SSDs makers to a reduced list of current manufacturers - removing thereby in a few mouse clicks the placeholdings for such past illustrious names as Pliant, OCZ and of course Nimbus.

Storage history shows that such lists - like those of hard drive makers, or tape drive makers, or optical drive makers have a lifecycle which rapidly grows into double digits in the formative years of those markets and then in the twilight years shrinks down to maybe the last 2 or 3 companies who service such customers as still need those products. But it doesn't end there.

In circumstances where the cost of keeping old systems running is still worthwhile - as in the military market - there can even be an afterlife (upto many decades later) of software and plug compatible emulation drives which employ entirely different technologies.

Indeed many business articles and books have been written on the subject of analyzing the different profitability and competitive landscapes of technology market life cycles. Some companies - like startups - shine at the beginning - whereas other companies - prefer being at the tail end of such markets.

Coming back to SAS SSDs...

So the announcement this week that Nimbus (otherwise better known for its multipetabyte capable rackmount SSD systems) was - in effect - entering the SAS SSD market as a 3.5" drive reference design supplier was not such a big surprise to me.

My first impression on seeing the headline was - this makes sense as a business plan for the same reasons that drive makers have entered the AFA business - because every kind of technology in the SSD market is now closely affected by other markets which were once thought to be segmentally distanced. (That was the big SSD market lesson of 2016.)

More interesting for me was the "aha! moment"- when it became clear that it was indeed Nimbus whose SSD controllers were at the heart of 2 recent (similar sounding but competing) high capacity SAS SSD product launches in recent weeks from Viking and SMART Modular.

Among other things Nimbus's announcement says...
  • Inside an ExaDrive-powered SSD, multiple ultra-low power ASICs exclusively handle error correction, while an intelligent flash processor provides wear-leveling and capacity management in software.
  • ExaDrive's software-defined architecture will enable SSDs as large as 500 TB by the year 2020.
  • 40 million nearline/high-capacity HDDs are shipped per year using the 3.5" form factor... ExaDrive-powered SSDs offer 5x the capacity of nearline HDDs in the same size and power budget.
  • ExaDrive supports up to 10 years of write endurance.
Nimbus has compiled an informationally interesting pdf - which describes its positiong compared to the 4 best known incumbent competitors in this market.

Editor's comments:- I'll be talking to Tom Isakovich, CEO Nimbus soon and will let you know what more I learn about this interesting fork in the company's business plan.

In the meantime I speculate thus:-

If the company plans to continue its ambitions in the SSD petabyte box business then offering the ExaDrive IP to other drive makers (as it has done) will provide greater shipment volume of its ASICs and software - which could reduce its own costs and improve Nimbus's competitiveness in the box market.

Another way of looking at it is that we've already seen other controller makers entering the SSD box market - for example InnoDisk with its AccelStor. And for reasons discussed in my classic enterprise consolidation article - we've already seen most of the flash memory makers (with the exception of Toshiba) - entering the SSD box market too.

So you might say what's sauce for the chip goose is sauce for the box gander.
Lucky and the Chickens a close up
The picture above is a close up of a painting which I call Lucky and the Chickens which was painted for me by Ken Turner in about 1998. I wrote about these feathery characters in storage news in 2007 - Lucky Goose and Attila the Hen.

Lucky - the goose in the painting above was hatched by a hen after his parents were killed by foxes. So he was imprinted as a chicken and although we tried to add geese to his environment he always ignored them and preferred the company of his fellow chicken.

The only chicken thing which Lucky wasn't able to do because of his phsyical make-up was roost in trees at night - because he had the wrong sort of feet.

You might say that the personality of SSDs is a bit like that too. The SSD may contain one type of memory but the way it behaves is determined by the controller IP, architecture and software. You still see some limitations from the intrinsic memory characteristics. Here are some of my articles which discuss those ideas.
  • Imprinting the brain of the SSD - Before 2007 - it was rare for SSD makers to say much about what their internal controllers did - or how they did it. How did the market go from - Who cares? to - You care! about the identity of SSD controllers?
  • after AFAs - what's the next box? - This raises the question:- what proportion of the raw semiconductor memory capacity ought to be usable as storage (SSD) or usable as memory (RAM - as in "random access memory" which operates with the software like DRAM but which could be implemented by other technologies).

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SSD news
SSD history
storage market research
decloaking hidden SSD segments in the enterprise
industrial SSDs - boring right?
Editor:- June 13, 2017 - For the past 11 years one of the safest assumptions you could make about the SSD market was that if you were looking for excitement and big revenue growth opportunities then the last place you should be looking was the industrial SSD market.

Indeed an important part of flash SSD history is that it started in industrial applications and only became mainstream and interesting - from a financial investor point of view - when flash SSD designers turned their gaze towards other directions like the consumer and enterprise markets.

In fact a good rule of thumb in the exciting days of disruptive change in the SSD market during 2004 to 2016 was that if you knew the capabilities of leading edge industrial SSD products in any one year the picture was probably the same the next year too.

For industrial customers - who were concerned about whether they would still be able to get the same locked BOM SSD 5 to 10 years after choosing it for their long lived design - the reassuringly boring predictability and calm, careful approach to new technology adoption in industrial SSD companies was widely regarded as a virtue compared to other brasher markets.

But there are many reasons to believe that the industrial SSD market will soon become a new attention seeking cauldron of innovation and architecture too.

I describe some of the indicators which brought me to this surprising conclusion in a new blog - not your grandfather's industrial SSD market.

If you're trying to predict and anticipate how the supply of next generation nand flash will ramp up in the next year (Q4 2017 to Q3 2018) compared to how you've seen memory successions in the past then the 3D nand flash market has presented many problems of analysis and interpretation.

Are more dimensions of analysis needed to get a clearer picture of future 3D nand successions
3D nand fab yield - the nth layer tax?
what's RAM really? - RAM in an SSD context
Are we there yet? - 23 years of SSD guides later...
miscellaneous consequences of the 2017 memory shortages
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Nimbus talks about SAS SSD array sauce
Editor:- August 30, 2017 - I had another conversation last week with Nimbus CEO Thomas Isakovich. My curiosity was roused by the company's recent entry into the SAS SSD market. And we had exchanged some emails about that but we both thought it would be nice to have a longer free flowing conversation. Here are some of the things we talked about:-
  • What's the new business plan for Nimbus? Does selling drives replace selling systems?

    Tom said Nimbus will do both. He sees the high capacity SAS SSDs as a new market opportunity.

    In the past competitors in the SAS SSD market have focused on performance rather than capacity and cost. Due to the predicted and actual impact of 2.5" NVMe SSDs the SAS market no longer has a performance reason to be. However even "slower" SAS SSDs provide useful life extensions and new market roles for makers of SAS arrays who previously used hard drives. A lot has changed in the SAS SSD market since the first drives were announced 10 years ago. Nimbus describe how and why they see a gap in the market today (pdf).

    Tom said - "One of the benefits we get from having alternative market outlets for our ExaDrive platform (the new no write limits SAS SSD) is that more minds take a close look at the design and operation (these being the flash drive partners Viking and SMART Modular). This and the higher volume of drives used will result in higher quality and more reliable SSDs compared to if we had just continued using the drives as a captive design in our own arrays."
  • Will the new drive business cannibalize Nimbus's array business?

    Tom said no.

    We were both on the same page about this agreeing on all the points we touched.

    We discussed how much more complicated the enterprise SSD arrays segments had gotten. Nimbus's drive customers can access as much of the software stack as they need.

    The ability for integrators to customize the array management of their SSDs has been a growing strategic shift in the market for several years. We've seen many different way of doing this.

    One trend has been for SSD makers to customize the controllers for their bigger cloud scale customers. But you can get better results more easily by customizing the data management using software instead - because software can intervene at multiple levels - both at the array and solo drive level. (This is an example of adaptive intelligence flow symmetry.)

    Nimbus uses standard flash controller IP to manage the flash (currently controllers from Hynix). Nimbus's software stack provides data management which is scalable to many petabytes in a small rack.
  • How has Nimbus been affected by the memory shortages and higher memory prices?

    Here's the gist.

    The efficiency of storage arrays - how many chips it takes to deliver storage with a given quality of performance and usefulness - has always been important in array designs.

    For as long as memory prices were falling then suboptimal architectures could still reach customers and satisfy the business plans of the companies which sold them. (The inefficiency hits were price, profit margin. electrical power and rack space. But the new systems would still look good compared to those they replaced.)

    Now with constrained supplies of memory everywhere - those designs which can do more with less - have a competitive advantage.

    Array-aware SSD controller software, coupled with scalable fault tolerant array architecture, are how the efficiency problems are best managed.

    For customers of Nimbus's new SAS SSDs - the ability to use the efficiency mechanisms which come from its array level experience will mean that its customers could do more with less chips in their boxes.

    So the shortages will be good for the market because they will force customers to gravutate towards better designs and better software architectures.
  • Is Nimbus still averse to VC funding?

    Tom said it wasn't exactly like that because the company did have investors. The company has followed a cautious route of aiming to be funded by its customers rather than suck in huge amounts of VC cash which impose their own timescale pressures.

    Nimbus owns its software stack and has been cutomizing the SSDs it uses for many years.

    In effect - the multi year development and evolutionary improvement of the company's array technologies are things you can do if you don't have a VC checking every part of the business against a calendar which has an IPO question hanging over every future quarter.
Editor's comments:- I've been talking to Tom Isakovich about design and architecture in storage arrays since 2001. So we had many previous threads to pick up from which I haven't written about here.

Nimbus - which was already a leader in the petabyte scale SSD market now has a viable stakeholding in the commodity SAS SSD rack market too. The company is well placed at the intersection of several strategic pathlines to the future within which it can adapt and comfortably nest.

here below are 2 earlier stories from the news archive which led up to this article

Viking offers mid life kicker to SAS SSD array market
Editor:- July 11, 2017 - Viking today announced it is shipping the industry's highest capacity 3.5" SAS SSD.

The dual port UHC-Silo SSD series has 50TB planar MLC capacity, endurance rating of 1 DWPD for 5 years, idle power consumption under 10W and active power usage of only 16W.

Editors' comments:- with 6Gps SAS rather than 12, and relatively low DWPD this is aimed at the capacity and power optimized part of the rackmount SSD market.

In 2012 I speculated that SAS would become the new SATA for array SSDs once the 2.5" PCIe SSD market reached a competitive critical mass - because quite frankly SAS can't compete on latency. Whereas there is a huge ecosystem which is comfortable with managing arrays of dual port SAS drives. So as long as the drives are big enough in capacity terms - there will be an appetite for them.

Looking at the datasheet - at first glance - an apparent weakness of the new UHC-Silo SSDs is the lack of any mention of power fail protection. But the best place to engineer such protection for enterprise storage can be at the rack level. So in that respect saving space and cost at the drive level can be regarded as a prudent customization.

Looking at the capacity claim in Viking's press release...

"There is no higher capacity SSD solution available today than the UHC-Silo SSD" said Hamid Shokrgozar, President, Viking Technology."...

Seagate demonstrated 60TB SAS SSD prototypes last August but if Viking really is shipping 50TB now that suggests that those wanting to extend the market life of SAS arrays and related software can look in new directions.

SMART sets no write limits on new 50TB SAS SSD
Editor:- August 4, 2017 - SMART Modular Technologies today announced that it will demonstrate a new 50TB dual port SAS SSD in 3.5" form factor next week at FMS.

SMART says that its new Osmium Drive consumes as little as 1/8th the power per terabyte compared to nearline HDDs.

Noteworthy from the endurance and DWPD point of view SMART's datasheet (pdf) says the MLC drive is specified to offer " unlimited writes" over a 5-year lifetime. Behind this may be the technical judgement that at SAS-2 speed and this storage capacity you can never write too much data.

Editor's comments:- in April 2013 - a related company - SMART Storage Systems was offering a 2TB 2.5" SAS SSD rated at 10 DWPD as a capacity leading fast storage drive for under $4,000. That company and product line was acquired by SanDisk. The SMART Modular Technologies in today's story is the industrial and special memory SSD business units which remained unaquired by SanDisk. So it's interesting to see them going back into a market where they effectively compete.

SAS is no longer regarded as a high performance drive interface (that role has long been taken over by PCIe and memory channel channel devices). Instead SAS has changed its role into being a convenient internal technology for high capacity fault tolerant rackmount SSDs which deliver multipetabyte scale SSD storage.

For other competing companies which have also announced ultra high capacity SAS SSDs see the SAS SSD news archive.