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rackmount SSDs - by Zsolt Kerekes, editor
I've been reporting on the rackmount SSD market since the early 1990s.

What's the main reason that most users look for rackmount SSDs today?

It's still mostly speed (IOPS performance and low latency).

But as predicted in my enterprise SSD market silos report - a new emerging trend is for fast-enough SSD racks to find an economic place between the performance levels of HDD arrays and the fast end of flash arrays.

Looking ahead further - yet another new segment for SSD racks - which is still to come - will be SSD arrays to implement the lowest cost bulk / archive / cloud storage at a lower cost than high capacity hard drive arrays.

There's a lot of complicated stuff going on in this market at the controller, software, architecture and business levels. These were explored in a recent home page blog - exciting new directions in rackmount SSDs
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Notes from SSD market history

The product shown below, from Imperial Technology
(which is no longer in business) is an example of a
rackmount SSD accelerated SAN router which was
featured here on in June 2003.
MegaRam-5000 from  Imperial Technology
MegaRam-5000 Enterprise SSD SAN router
from Imperial Technology
rackmount SSD news
DCIG ranks top rackmount SSD vendors

Editor:- March 31, 2014 - If you're interested in rackmount SSDs then DCIG has published the DCIG 2014-15 Flash Memory Storage Array Buyer's Guide (free sign-up page) - which provides detailed comments on the strengths and weaknesses of rackmount SSD systems from 20 different vendors - which are currently available in the market today (includes list prices).

DCIG have created their own multi-dimensional scoring system in which they look at component features such as density (TB/U), software compatibility (for example ease of integration with VMware), and management functions (dedupe, tiering, snapshots etc). DCIG has ranked these systems overall - and compared many of them to others in the same price band. Another useful feature of the report is a background story about the design heritage or market history of each product.

Editor's comments:- I've read the report and think it's a good read with respect to the raw data and detailed observations about many of the systems listed.

As to the product rankings?

I think whether you agree or not - depends on whether you would assign the same weights to each constituent in the confidential matrix of factors which DCIG have devised.

For some users it will reflect your own priorities - for others - the scoring outcome would be entirely different.

Among the SSD vendors listed in the report - the happiest will be Nimbus (who have been crowing today about being #1) - and happy too should be HP (which is #2).

Some vendors - whose products are best in class in a particular dimension - don't score highly in the main list because they lose out on the "sum of all things which DCIG think you might need" - which is an application dependent judgement - rather than being a universal "goodness" attribute.

The only company which is conspicuously absent from DCIG's list (at any rank) is Fusion-io. Does DCIG know something we don't? That's very odd.

Pure Storage announces rackmount SSD mille-stone

Editor:- March 11, 2014 - Pure Storage today announced it has shipped over 1,000 of its Pure FlashArrays (fast enough rackmount SSDs).

Editor's comments:- in case you didn't get that "mille-stone" thing. "Mille" is an olde English prefix (from latin) meaning "thousand".

In enterprise flash array history context?

Pure Storage's shipments milestone is less signficant than IBM's 1,500 FlashSystem 840s (fast rackmount SSDs), but more significant than Tegile's 1,000 Zebi storage arrays (hybrids) - which we have also heard about in this quarter.

wanted! - VARs for Fusion's rackmounts

Editor:- February 10, 2014 - Fusion-io recently announced that its systems level (PCIe SSD inside) products will be widely available from VARs in North America in in Spring 2014. Specifically these products include:- Editor's comments:- It takes less time to hatch a human baby than it has taken for Fusion-io to make the transition from first talking about some of these integrated systems to making them generally available.

Traditionally - SSD systems companies hid the messy product creation process - and preferred to launch their new rack babies when they were fully formed and ready to fly off the shelves. That's in contrast to drive makers who often start revealing what their plans are - long enough beforehand so that their customers can warm up to the idea.

In Fusion's case - what we've been seeing in the past 2-3 quarters is not so much the development of new rackmount product lines (because all the technology components already existed before) but what we've witnessed instead is the growth pangs and development of a new SSD systems business - jostling for adequate space and recognition within an already confident module and software business - with much of the thinking about the priorities being done out loud and visible to the public gaze.

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.

heads up alert for a future article about rackmount SSDs

Editor:- January 15, 2014 - Decloaking hidden segments in the enterprise for rackmount SSDs is the working title of a future article which will appear here on on or shortly before February 14.

Segmentation is an important marketing concept which enables vendors to operate more efficiently by identifying discrete sets of customers within contextual frameworks - who (for specific stated purposes) can be modeled as having similar needs. But many significant user adoption realities still remain conspicuously absent in enterprise SSD marketing plans. ...more about this

enterprise flash storage - the 1st decade

Editor:- December 11, 2013 - as we approach the end of another year - it's interesting to note that this also marks the end of the 1st decade of flash storage arrays in the enterprise.

This decade was an unruly period in SSD history - accompanied from the very beginning by early doubts that flash could ever be as reliable and capable as DRAM SSDs.

Indeed - every few years - the reliability debate was re-opened by the desire to use newer, cheaper and intrinsically less reliable types of flash memory to increase competitiveness - which relied on ever more complicated internal architectures to manage the growing raw technology deficits.

Most other IT related markets would have reached some kind of predictable calm by now. But there's no sign of that here in the SSD market. Instead - all the debates and architectural upheavels which accompanied enterprise flash before now seem quaintly simple by modern standards. To get an idea of what happened see my classic article - "Sugaring Flash for the Enterprise".

Violin's 1st quarterly report

Editor:- November 25, 2013 - Now that Violin is a public company - it has to publiicly report revenue etc - and in its first such report for the quarter ended October 31 - revenue was $28 million - which the company says was 37% more than a year ago.

"Enterprise data center storage is in the early stages of a major transformation to an Enterprise Memory based infrastructure, and Violin is at the forefront of accelerating this transformation," said Don Basile, CEO of Violin Memory.

Editor's comments:- one of the self-awareness repositioning adjustments which Violin has still yet to make - is that compared to the time when the company entered the SSD market 6 years ago - when there were only 59 companies in the whole SSD market - and only 2 of the top 10 companies at that time (including Violin) were marketing rackmount SSDs - we're now in a market where the number of SSD companies is 10x bigger.

I could easily give you a list of over 100 vendors today which market rackmount SSDs or hybrids and - in the most recent quarter - 7 of the top 10 SSD companies were marketing rackmount SSDs within their product line.

All of which means - there is a much bigger market which Violin could get - if it were not for the pesky inconvenience of all those other competitors.

So - when the company says that the enterprise market is still at the "early stages" of adopting SSD systems - in one way I'd agree with that - insofar as the upside potential for this whole market in revenue is more than 10x more than it is today - but on the other hand - while Violin has got good brand recognition and has established a track record in some segments of the enterprise SSD market - for example in high availability and fast SSDs - I don't rate it as a strong runner in the race for some of the new technology developments which are emerging in the rackmount market.

Nevertheless - the segments in which Violin is already arguably a leader - are big enough.

I often say to CEOs in enterprise SSD companies that an important business strategy for surviving to play in the bigger SSD market of the future - is to get better at what they do now - and to focus on just one or two strategic product types which they can execute well and be the #1 or #2 - rather than making the mistake of enlarging their product lines - and being an "also compete" company which is never quite good enough to get the business - because it operates in too many diverse application segments in which it can't possibly be the best solution.

what are others saying about VMEM?

You may decide that my ratios are too timid - I said to Skyera's CEO - Rado Danilak.

If so - scare us!

Editor:- October 22, 2013 - I spoke recently to Skyera's CEO about SSD utilization efficiencies and the problem of being a newbie vendor in the enterprise SSD market. You can see more in the article - scary Skyera.

New report from the Spur Group tracks "share of voice" in rackmount SSD market

Editor:- October 16, 2013 - The Spur Group recently launched a new market report service - Share of Partner Voice: Storage and SSD ($4,995) which compare the sales channels for 4 encumbant rackmount storage platform vendors: EMC, NetApp, Oracle and Dell against the channel efforts of selected rackmount SSD suppliers including:- Fusion-io X-IO, Violin Memory, Skyera, Whiptail and others.

The Spur Group says its "Share of Partner Voice" web based methodology is rooted in "extracting website content from over 76,000 technology service providers, hosting companies, software developers and other customer facing technology suppliers through a proprietary crawler."

Ross Brown, senior principal and the lead author of the report, said - "Our approach to measuring Share of Partner Voice® shows that Violin Memory is outpacing the market, with more than twice the brand presence of its nearest competitor. The report also highlights why the market for acquiring these companies is accelerating, as the channel adoption is happening very quickly and often at the expense of incumbent platforms."

Editor's comments:- As you know I'm a great believer in the value of using raw web data to get insights into fast changing emerging markets - which is why I launched the Top SSD Companies series - 6½ years ago.

The raw data types and methodologies which The Spur Group use are completely different to ours. They look at different types of web activity and are based on different population samples - so the results and inferences are going to have different use cases too.

The growing ecosystem for storage and SSD market data companies is a healthy sign that more economic activity in future will become SSD-centric.

But a bigger SSD market means bigger risks too.

This is a complex and innovative market - so it's very easy to miss key products, companies and trends in the SSD market compared to the comparative ease with which you can assess what's happening in the "no great surprises here" technology museum segments elsewhere in the enterprise.

Cisco to acquire WhipTail

Editor:- September 10, 2013 - Cisco today announced its intent to acquire privately owned WhipTail for approximately $415 million in cash and retention-based incentives.

"We are focused on providing a converged infrastructure including compute, network and high performance solid state that will help address our customers' requirements for next-generation computing environments," said Paul Perez, VP and GM, Cisco Computing Systems Product Group.

Editor's comments:- as we learned in June - WhipTail has designed an elegant and scalable software and hardware architecture to solve the ever changing SSD rackmount riddle game - which can compete in cost sensitive iSCSI environments or hold its head up among the fastest SSD installations while also offering resilient fault tolerance and upgradability.

WhipTail entered the Top 20 SSD companies list in Q4 2011 and has been in the Top 10 part of these lists in every quarter since Q2 2012.

new products from Pure Storage, the significance of 38KB, and a door opens for future government business

Editor:- May 29, 2013 - Pure Storage today announced new models in it rackmount SSD family of non-disruptively upgradeable HA storage which double the performance of the 2U controllers to 400K 8K IOPS and provides 12TB of raw storage in 2U. In a related video the company said - the average size of I/O requests its customers see is 38KB - which is why Pure Storage has stopped using 4KB IOPS metrics in its sales literature.

Editor's comments:- The rack density of Pure Storage's new FA-400 systems (approx 10TB usable/ U for a 10U stack using a mix of 2U controller shelves which manage 2U storage racks which each have upto 24x 512GB SAS SSDs inside) is low by comparison to industry leaders.

From a business point of view this means their architecture may not be the first choice for customers looking for huge installations of SSD (scaling to hundreds of petabytes) or who have datacenters in expensive city locations where increasing the square footage of storage or server cabinet space is simply not an option - and for whom higher density (SSD TB/U) outweighs any hypothetical considerations such as lower cost per terabyte to buy.

The company says it has shipped hundreds of units.

How you interpret that will depend on your perspective. It's small by comparison to competitors which have been in the market longer - but also indicates that the product works and the company is capable of developing business in the difficult to reach smaller customers who were orphaned by the earlier stages of enterprise SSD adoption which focused more on SSD-CPU equivalency as the economic justification rather than simply displacing HDD arrays. Pure Storage's business model is the harder nut to crack - but is a bigger market opportunity - which has no clear leaders at the present time.

In another interesting announcement today Pure Storage today said it is receiving an investment from In-Q-Tel (IQT), the investment firm that identifies innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the US Intelligence Community. The partnership will allow Pure Storage to further develop its FlashArray technology to meet the unique needs of IQT's government customers.

This is just speculation on my part - but one of the big headaches for users with sensitive info on hard drives is the cost and secure logistics associated with disk sanitization when storage drives reach end of service life.

The only trustworthy way to deal with hard drives is to physically shred the drives into little pieces. SSDs present different challenges for this end of the data lifecycle - but also offer more technical solutions - such as built-in destructive fast-purge - but that adds to the cost of the drives. Within the context of an SSD rack - it should be possible to integrate reliable software based data shredding - which would save costs for customers who factor in these considerations.

exciting new directions in rackmount SSDs

Editor:- May 29, 2013 - If you're an enterprise user who is already sold on the idea of using more SSDs - what could be better than a great new SSD drive?

If you're an SSD vendor looking for the magic formula to open up vast new untapped markets for SSDs - what kind of solution do you need to offer to attract enterprises who aren't at the sharp end of the performance pain curve, are content with the speed they get from HDDs and who aren't even looking at SSDs for their network storage?

This is a problem which has been occupying the SSD industry's smartest product architects for years. And their answer to both questions is the same - although the product details vary according to the target market. - It's a new type of SSD box.

A new generation of enterprise SSD rackmounts is breaking all the rules which previously constrained price, performance and reliability. The sum impact of cleverly designed SSD arrays is systems which are many times more competitive than you would imagine from any tear-down analysis of the parts.

The new SSD folksy wisdom - "you can't second guess an enterprise flash array from knowing what drives are in it" - may soon have to join the - "you can no longer judge an SSD from simply knowing its memory".

Anyway - to get back to my headline today - the new math of this new reality SSD box trend - what's behind it, where it's going, and some of the vendors driving it - are explored in my recent home page blog on - exciting new directions in rackmount SSDs. the article

Kaminario drops PCIe and turns to SAS to get costs down in new HA rackmount

Editor:- April 18, 2013 - "You don't have to be an investment bank like JP Morgan to afford our style of fast, scalable high availability SSD systems any more" - was the key message I got talking to Phil Williams, VP Business Development at Kaminario earlier this week when discussing with me aspects of the company's newest series of FC SAN compatible SSD arrays - the K2 v4 (6TB usable per U at a cost of $10K to $15K per TB) which was launched yesterday.

Phil was referring to the expectation that their products - which in the first generation were entirely RAM based SSDs - and then moved onto RAM / flash hybrids and then mostly pure flash (the flash components being implemented in the previous generation of K2's by Fusion-io's PCIe SSDs - a relationship direction which I suggested in a much earlier briefing conversation with Kaminario's CEO few years ago BTW ) - had acquired a reputation of being out of reach pricewise - and not just in a class of their own for resilience and scalability.

One of the ways that Kaminario has pulled off the affordability trick is to drop PCIe SSDs as the internal flash components and use instead SAS SSDs.

I've said before that in the enterprise arrays space - "SAS is the new SATA" - because there are so many companies which have moved into this segment that there's stiff competition. Unlike the PCIe SSD market -which is mostly sold on high performance - the SAS market includes a number of vendors who have been using adaptive R/W ECC to enable them to use cheap flash to build reliable fast-enough SSDs

Because Kaminario still has a lot of RAM cache in its server based architecture - it doesn't need the raw endurance and performance of FIO's ioMemory to deliver multi-gigabyte throughput at the rack level. And another factor is that Fusion-io itself is on course to become a significant supplier of rackmount SSDs (although not aimed at the same kind of customers.)

Kaminario didn't want to say which SAS product they're using. They might say later. But it doesn't really matter.

The K2 v4 also demonstrates that the key IP component in Kaminario's box is SSD software. When I suggested that future boxes could equally well discard SAS SSDs if 2.5" PCIe SSDs offered a better set of characteristics - Phil agreed that the company wasn't tied to any particular internal SSD drive form factor or interface.

Kaminario has paid Taneja Group to do some new testing on the performance aspects of simulated hard faults. These will be very useful for customers - and take the uncertainty out of the picture - giving hard numbers for various scenarios.

For example - when running at just under 200K IOPS and 5GB/s throughput - an entire node (controller) was removed to simulate a fault. I/O resumed after 23 seconds and performance dropped by less than 15% for 2 minutes before recovering fully.

Nimbus brings flash SMART plus stats to SSD rackmounts

Editor:- March 25, 2013 - Nimbus Data Systems today announced new software APIs which support its proprietary HALO OS based family of rackmount SSDs - and report on hundreds of real-time and historical metrics such as:- flash endurance, capacity utilization, latency, power consumption, deduplication rates, and overall system health. Another new feature is that sys admins can monitor their Nimbus SSD arrays via new apps on Android / Apple phones and tablets.

Thomas Isakovich, CEO and founder of Nimbus Data said the new software framework would enable cloud architects and enterprise customers to gain greater insight into their flash storage by viewing internal aspects of their flash storage which mattered to them - rather than simply relying on benchmark indicators which have been cherry picked by vendors or reviewers

EMC samples XtremIO flash arrays

Editor:- March 5, 2013 - EMC today announced new models of PCIe SSDs which the company claims offer nearly 60% better TCO than (unnamed competitors) due to new levels of efficiency.

EMC's XtremSF half - height, half - length PCIe SSDs are currently available in eMLC upto 2.2TB, while SLC models upto 1.4TB will ship in the 2nd quarter.

EMC also said it's sampling flash arrays which are designed and managed using the big SSD controller architecture based on leveraging IP from its acquisition of XtremIO.

Editor's comments:- the industry has been anticipating flash SSDs which use XtremIO's RAID busting architecture.

Details are sketchy right now - but the efficiency gains from throwing away the old drive array design rulebook and starting again with a flash foundation while at the same time having control of the complete SSD software stack can be impressive - as I learned last year talking to Rado Danilak CEO of another leading company taking this approach - Skyera.

Can we expect EMC's array pricing to come down to Skyera levels?

That will never happen - because EMC's business carries the legacy burden of too many hard drives and too many old suits.

But what we could see instead - is EMC's flash arrays coming down to a price point where the customer pain is low enough to delay many of them from switching away to other flash. Which means EMC could still have a future in the solid state storage business.

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Pure Storage tells CNBC about enterprise flash
Editor:- June 3, 2013 - "You're not the only company that plays in this market - correct?" - said Becky Quick, co-anchor of CNBC's squawkbox in a leading question to Scott Dietzen, CEO of Pure Storage (Monday morning).

"We weren't the first to package flash for storage" said Dietzen. "What we did figure out uniquely was how to get flash into a place where it was price competitive with (enterprise) disk." the video

Editor's comments:- "uniquely" must have another meaning I haven't learned yet.