One of the most
potentially rewarding market challenges which SSD companies are grappling
with right now is - how to make enterprise solid state storage attractive to
users who aren't worried about their hard drive performance and don't even
think they need SSDs.
But innovative SSD systems vendors throughout
the SSD speed spectrum have also been beavering away on the business
problem of how to ambush their competitors with stunning new competitive
metrics which will knock them out of the game.
sanity checks from SSD acquisitions
Let's pause for a moment to
review some recent mergers and acquisitions trends in the SSD market.
About 21 SSD companies (or their SSD assets) were
acquired in the
21 months period between August 2011 and April 2013.
If we look at
what may have been the primary motivator for these acquisitions a simple
summary would be:-
SSD systems vendors:- 5 companies acquired - out of which no more than 2
had product lines which were good enough to stay on the SSD race track while
changing T-shirts - so they effectively continued to be marketed seamlessly
without intense modification or adaptation by their new owners.
you can see from the types of acquisition which occur most frequently - the
recent trend in SSD company acquisitions has been mostly about buying the
capability to design a better SSD rather than buying a company which already
makes a perfect product.
That's because the evolution of what is an
SSD, what it should do, and how it should fit into the computing infrastructure
is still evolving.
The big difference
between now and 10 years ago for SSDs is that in the past the SSDs had to
shoe-horn in to markets which didn't know what they were, didn't want them
and didn't make any software concessions to let them easily fit in.
- in contrast - the big thrust in the computer industry is to make applications
and servers and infrastructure adapt to be SSD-friendly.
being SSD-friendly is the only way that the non SSD enterprise market has a
future which goes faster and gets cheaper.
Going back to my analysis of
SSD company acquisitions - you may ask why did I choose that arbitrary starting
date? (August 2011)
It was when the SSD market first placed a
significant monetary valuation on the potential of SSD systems software.
you can see from contemporary comments - it was clear enough at that time of
the first couple of those SSD software acquisitions that the right kind of SSD
software would make it easier to sell more SSDs (of the same kind which a vendor
has already got).
But there are 2 more good strategic reasons for
acquiring the right kind of SSD software - which are more important than the
obvious plugging gaps in functionality. These are:-
to open up new markets for SSD rackmount arrays by leveraging
thereby enhancing the reliability and performanceof the whole array - and
doing more for less cost.
to start laying the foundations for an SSD software platform.
I've discussed this aspect before in earlier news stories - I won't say too
much more of this aspect here because it will be covered in a later article.
OK - I will say a bit more - otherwise you'll be wondering - what's
the SSDmouse squeaking about with these tantalizing hints?
One way to
look at the evolution of industry standard operating systems is they started as
way to virtualize commonly required functionality for processors, and then by
virtue of their market popularity - became more important than the original
processors - because it was easier to incrementally inrtoduce new apps into
markets by co-existing with other popular apps which already did other stuff.
If you fast forward in time 3-4 years when the biggest investment in hardware
assets in the datacenter are the SSDs (and not the servers or rotating storage)
then the whole world of new systems software will revolve around the view and
reach of the SSD software platform.
That means for new apps to work
better it will more important to know the SSD software than to know the OS.
A handful of SSD software founders that I've spoken to in recent years
have been fully aware of what possibilities that represents for their
companies. (Better than being the next Microsoft.)
But to get to the
future they still have to cope with and survive the market trepidations of the
My guess is that we'll end up with several major SSD
software platforms - which will co-exist in some kind of oligopolistic tension.
So maybe more like Oracle than Microsoft.
But these platforns will be
there because of the de-facto market status of the SSD companies which started
them and the sizes of their customer bases.
thinking inside the
Some of the deepest thinking going on in the SSD market
right now is focused on rackmount SSDs. (Or enterprise flash arrays - if you
think that sounds better.)
For those designing a new SSD array product
range - or even a new business - the fundamental questions are:-
what should it do?
what will it be used for?, and
how can I be sure that my new design is the one which users prefer to buy -
instead of all those others - which have been designed by my competitors who
have access to exactly the same memory chips?
also - if I want to maintain control of my company and my present position
and don't want to spend more time talking to investors than I do talking to
customers - how can I be sure that my design will be more profitable than all
Those questions used to be easy to answer for a number of
the enterprise SSD market used to be simple to characterize.
Users bought SSDs for a limited set of reasons centered around speed. And those
users could afford to identify that problem - they could often afford to solve
the enterprise SSD market used to be small.
So there was little or
no incentive to design a different kind of product for a niche.
the number of design dimensions available to play with - within the IP of
a typical SSD rack used to be restricted.
It was either mostly custom
hardware - with little or no software playing inside,
or it was mostly
me-too hardware - with arrays based on commonly available (commercial off
the shelf) SSD drives - with some cute SSD software tricks to spice up the
reliability and ease of integration with legacy installations.
things brief I'm going to assume in the rest of this article that you're
already reasonably familiar with the current state of things the rackmount
SSD market (or the bits which you're interested in). Even so - you may still
find some of these earlier articles useful.
The main idea to take away
from this article is that there will continue to be diversity in the internal
architectures and detailed features of rackmount SSDs due to valid different
preferences among end-users.
This is something which often mystifies
SSD marketers who are new to the enterprise markets and come from electronics
or semiconductor components backgrounds so it needs repeating.
means users will choose SSD systems which are technically very different on
the inside - even when their apps requirements (for performance and capacity
and compatibility) look superficially the same from the outside.
because other factors outweigh these top level headline tech specs - such as
completely different operating assumptions about the need for
upgradeability or fault replacement at the module level (ranging from
mandatory to irrelevant depending on whether the atomic change unit is a drive
or the whole rack),
different assumptions about the needs for the SSD to be a good datacenter
Is it one of few SSDs in the customer's population - so
it'salready better than the hard drive
RAID which was there
before - or it one of thousands of similar SSD racks - so the user has to
analyze small differences - such as density and power consumption - because they
will add up to big effects
the usual differences - which have always been factors in the enterprise
market - which involve judging whether it's worth taking a risk to use a newer
cheaper solution from a less well known supplier - or pay more and wait for the
new technology to trickle down through established suppliers
This article provides a
useful framework for grouping all the enterprise SSDs which exist now or which
will exist in the next 5 years into 7 sets - based on what roles they will have
in a pure solid state storage datacenter.
The categorization scheme
is based on relativistic characteristics - and it describes a heirarchy of
different types of distinctly different SSD system types.
It's not a
simple up down heirarchy. It goes sideways too.
My silos system is
based on the firm belief that no single enterprise SSD product will be
technically able to meet all forseeable enterprise market needs at a price which
is affordable to all the people who need and can afford SSDs. SSDs will be
segmented and optimized for different roles. Most large end user sites will use
many of these differing SSD types.
The differences in these SSD
classifications - which is still hard to spot in some of the systems being
offered today unless you're an expert - will clarify as these product segments
grow into bigger markets.
That's because vendors who don't
understand where they fit into these silos will go bust or exit the market due
to the inefficiency of offering products which don't satisfy needs economically
- by trying to satisfy too many needs unrealistically.
If you're making
supplier shortlists it's a great aid.
I've already heard from readers
who are big consumers of SSDs they find it useful. I also know that many SSD
company CEOs and VPs of marketing find it useful too as a way to map where they
are in the competitive landscape and who their real competitors are.
the guide to
SSD guides - among other things includes a short month by month summary of
key product news in the past 12 months or so.
If you're interested in
companies mentioned in that article - clicking on their name will give you a
more detailed SSD-centric profile. But the guide also includes lists to top
level directories - such as extracts from news about
SSDs, iSCSI SSDs etc.
It's far from being perfectly complete - because if a company isn't
at the leading edge of competitiveness - or if their marketing is dozy - they
may not get mentioned at all.
But diving into these pages and reading
the comments etc will give you a taste of what's available in these product
groups and issues which surround them.
exciting new directions in
I haven't forgotten.
So you may ask - what
sort of difference can good design and integration at the SSD array (systems)
level make? - which is over and above any natural results you'd get from simply
connecting the individual drives and placing them in the same box - or on the
There are no hard limits limits - and the industry is
still pushing at these boundaries.
But here's an idea of some of the
things you can expect (although not necessarily all at the same time):-
faster performance - 3x to 10x
many different ways of doing this.
The leading advocate of ditching
legacy APIs - Fusion-io
- has always said that customers who go down this road with their solutions
often see speedups in the 10x and upwards range. Having said that - the company
also has also been working on parallel routes to market in legacy compatible
rackmount storage markets too which are more oriented towards cost savings than
says its way of doing RAID striping involves 3x less writes than tradional
RAID-6. (There are many other companies who also do something similar too.) This
technique means better peak performance loonger operating life too.
using less chips - while providing the same usable capacity at the
same speed and operating life.
How many less chips?
percentage can range from 30% to 50%.
Violin often used to say
that was a competitive advantage which came from their architecture.
Whiptail says that a
combination of RAM
caching and software efficiencies means that logs from its legacy SSD
customers are indicating usable operational lives - from a flash endurance
viewpoint of 7 to 8 years.
Skyera says that the
combination of the techniques used in their boxes effectively deliver SSD array
life which is 100x better than suggested by the raw life of the flash chips they
use. They aren't suggesting that customers will use their systems any longer -
instead it 's one of the factors which enable them to build an SSD box with one
of the lowest costs per
TB in its class.
Nimbus uses high level
software in its Halo OS as part of the endurance management. I learned that
their SSD racks support 50x full capacity writes each day for 5 years - which
is significantly better than the raw endurance of the SAS SSDs in their arrays.
lower system cost - upto 10x lower cost - to do the same
In addition to the efficiency gains mentioned above which reduce
the number of raw memory chips needed to deliver each terabyte of usable
physical capacity - some vendors also include real-time dedupe and compression
as functions which can be turned on or off, or application specific
Networks new system which is heavily optimized for
iSCSI environments - the
combination of IP accelerator hardware coupled with dedupe enables them to
offer fast-enough virtualized storage at under $2,000 / TB.
vendor - still in stealth mode has been telling me recently about software
technologies which will enable million IOPS class SSD racks with several GB/s
throughput using a combination of dedupe, compression and other techniques to
deliver systems that will cost in the region of $100 to $200 per network
virtualized terabyte. We'll have to wait and see how that looks in a real
These are the technology directions which will enable
rackmount SSDs to move into new applications - which until recently were
unjustifiable in terms of cost benefit analysis.
Where they lead to
doing much more than the sum of the parts
doing much better with less
less useless thrashing around,
and much lower costs too
The new SSD folksy wisdom...
can't second guess an enterprise flash array from knowing what drives are in
" Boundary analysis
indicates that enterprise users will cease to regard hard drive arrays
attractive or usable at this point in the market - and instead switch to
utility SSD storage - even if hard drives are free."
"In the not too
distant future - ALL nand flash SSDs will have to use adaptive R/W and DSP
ECC IP technologies in their controller schemes in order to be able to use newer
generations of denser flash memory. The small number of companies who have these
technologies right now - derive enormous competitive advantages already."
emerging size of
the flash SSD market as you see it today was by no means inevitable. It owes a
lot to 3 competing storage media competitors which failed to evolve fast enough
in the Darwinian jungle of the storage market in the