Enterprise SSD vendors now enjoy a thriving market. But it wasn’t always so.
Like any new technology, it took the solid-state drive (SSD) a little longer to find enterprise acceptance than it did to find consumer acceptance. And just as well. While consumers were paying $1,000 for a 60GB SSD, the enterprise sat back and waited.
Enterprise storage is highly sensitive to data loss issues. This isn’t about losing pictures of your vacation, and this is about the data that runs a business. So IT managers wanted to wait until the measurable mean time before failure (MTBF) and write durability started to emerge.
“Enterprise” SATA SSDs are difficult to define, notes Jim Handy, principal analyst for Objective Research, who follows the SSD market. So difficult, in fact, that serious players shun the term “Enterprise” and use other words like “Data Center.”
Consumer/enterprise vendors like Intel, Samsung, and Micron all do very well in this market, as does Western Digital through its SanDisk subsidiary. “The key to success here is reliability, and Western Digital and Intel are both very highly trusted by system administrators, whereas most other companies are less well known,” said Handy.
As durability and wear level increased along with capacity and speed, the enterprise began to slowly embrace the SSD as the logical replacement for the 15,000 RPM drives used in data centres for “hot storage,” data that was accessed frequently. While very fast, 15k RPM drives also had high failure rates and low capacity, usually 73GB or 144GB, a pittance.
SSDs now live in the enterprise as a cache for fast and regular data access, usually between hard disk storage and memory. At first, SSDs were the bailiwick of newer companies, but the old storage guard has gotten into the market through both its own products and strategic acquisitions. There are a lot of vendors to choose from, and we’ve chosen eight to keep an eye on.
Enterprise SSD Vendors
The company known for its CPUs started out as a DRAM maker, after all, so it’s a logical full circle for Intel to get into SSDs. Point of fact, it’s actually one of the best makers out there. Intel knows chips. It knows how to design them and it knows how to manufacture them, and that’s 99% of the battle.
In the case of Intel SSDs, though, the manufacturing is done by Micron, but it and Intel have a deep partnership that undoubtedly includes help in manufacturing.
Intel’s real contribution is the Non-Volatile Memory Exchange, a host controller for PCI Express-based SSDs. The primary interface for SSDs is SATA, but that bus has just 6Gbits/sec. transfer rates. PCIe 3.0, the latest version of the spec, allows for 1GB/sec per lane, and PCIe SSDs are usually 16 lanes.
In addition to speed, NVMe introduced a controller designed for SSD. The majority of SSD controllers in the early days were modified or adapted hard disk controllers, which didn’t take into account how differently an SSD reads and writes data. NVMe was built for flash memory. As a result, many SSD makers offer NVMe-based PCIe SSDs.
2) Western Digital
The biggest hard drive maker also made the smartest acquisitions. It purchased HGST from Hitachi (which in turn bought the hard drive business from IBM years earlier) and it purchased SanDisk.
WD is a clear leader in the SAS market through its HGST acquisition. They were early to market with a quality SAS SSD by partnering with Intel and that gave them a lead. SAS, though, is a niche of the overall SSD market. SATA, despite being slower and maxed out, is still dominant.
SAS does have one thing going for it: it is tuned for a 70/30 ratio of reads to writes, and the emphasis is on reads. Enterprise apps look for high endurance write levels. In the last two years, people have noticed high read loads rather than high write loads, said Handy. Data centre SSDs, with low writes per day, don’t need to write endurance as much as previously thought.
3) IBM/Texas Memory Systems
TMS was the originator of SSD storage systems, coming out with its first drive back in 1978 before it was known as an SSD. It introduced its first full line of SSDs called RamSan in 2000. TMS offers SSD, DRAM caching and PCIe flash storage.
TMS is a very high-end company and charges top dollar. Its Opera line of drives was tuned specifically to accelerate Oracle databases. And one-third of its business is government. TMS has a lot of very high-level clearances to handhold the secret government customers. It was acquired by IBM in 2012, which continues to sell it as a high-end storage and cache product.
A company built on storage, EMC has no less than five flash storage systems.
* All-flash VMAX
* All-flash Unity
* All-flash VNX2
And after the company’s purchase by Dell clears, there will also be the all-flash Dell SC line. XtremIO was purchased in 2012. XtremIO is a high availability unit with high speed reads and writes across “bricks” of eight for maximum throughput. EMC promises deduplication, data protection and the fastest throughput available.
EMC has been aggressive in bundling XtremIO with its normal storage systems. Customers who ask for regular systems are often offered XtremIO for a bargain-basement price, said handy.
5) Pure Storage
Pure Storage started up in 2009 as an enterprise storage products company built around flash memory. The company’s flagship product, called FlashArray is designed to accelerate applications that require very high rates of random IOPS like server virtualization, database systems, and cloud computing. It uses both InfiniBand and Fibre Channel for connections.
Pure Storage uses multi-level cell flash memory, which has a higher capacity for the same price than single-level cell memory. Using data compression and data deduplication, the firm markets FlashArray to compete with traditional disk arrays. The company claims FlashArray requires about 20% of the power and space required for traditional disk-based arrays.
All of the high-end systems vendors are knee-deep in SSD, but Oracle really jumped in with both feet, and early. As early as 2009, Oracle was advocating using SSD to run its database.
The 2010 purchase of Sun Microsystems only furthered that effort, as Sun was an early supporter of enterprise SSD as a cache between apps and traditional hard drive storage. Oracle has built on Sun’s efforts and now uses massive amounts of flash storage for caching purposes. It’s Exadata servers pack multiple 3.2TB flash PCI Express drives, for example.
Oracle also offers a separate SAN block storage system called Pillar, which offers application-aware unified SAN and NAS functionality, and also supports NAS, Fibre Channel, and iSCSI modules. Because of this, it combines flash with traditional disks, which consolidates all storage requirements onto a single system.
7) Diablo Technologies
Since 2010, Diablo has been working on an SSD technology called Memory Channel Storage, which puts flash memory onto DRAM sticks and goes into the DRAM slot, rather than SATA or PCIe. This gives NAND flash direct access to the CPU, and vice versa, since the DRAM slots connect directly to the CPU. This requires changes to the BIOS to see the memory, so not every server can utilize it. Most recently, Diablo introduced a 128GB DDR4 memory DIMM.
8) Violin Memory
Violin Memory specializes in rackmount flash memory arrays that offer performance and low spike or spike-free latency for business-critical applications and virtualized environments. Its arrays are specifically designed for extreme sustained performance and can scale to tens of terabytes of capacity, millions of IOPs per second, and gigabytes per second of bandwidth at low latency.
Violin was a pioneer in big controller SSD architecture, so background tasks don’t interrupt data flow. It uses an FPGA design, which is reprogrammable and updatable, and Violin also makes its own boards, again designed for high-performance and high-throughput. It makes its own flash arrays, called VIMMs or Violin Intelligent Memory Modules.