Sun joins the SSD scramble

By Kevin Komiega

—In a meeting with press and analysts this week, Sun Microsystems announced that it is on the verge of shipping a new crop of homegrown flash-based storage systems that combine general-purpose hardware, solid-state disks (SSDs), and open-source software.

The new products, scheduled to hit the streets in the second half of this year, promise higher read/write performance than traditional arrays while consuming less power than systems based on traditional disk drive technologies.

Specifications, pricing and other details have not been publicly disclosed, but Sun did provide one example of what a flash-based array with low-power 4,200rpm SATA drives managed by ZFS might look like. Sun's executive vice president of systems, John Fowler, says the test configuration using 32GB SSDs showed three times the performance at one-fifth the energy consumption of traditional disk arrays.

Fowler says Sun is betting heavily on SSDs in all of its systems and is aggressively working on a range of products that will bring flash to the enterprise.

"This isn't a side project for Sun. This is central to our server and storage strategy. This is how you build server and storage systems," says Fowler. "With the right software architecture you can incorporate flash into the memory hierarchy seamlessly. By the end of this year the majority of high-performance application servers will be using SSDs."

Fowler also hinted that Sun is in the process of making a departure from OEMing its storage arrays by building a series of homegrown entry-level and midrange arrays that use SSD technology and open-source software.

EMC was the first major array vendor out of the gate early this year with announced support for SSDs in its Symmetrix DMX-4 arrys. EMC plans to put 73GB and 146GB SSDs into the mix with some tweaks to the DMX operating software that take advantage of flash technology by including the ability to provision, manage, replicate, and move data between flash drives and traditional Fibre Channel and SATA drives in the same array.

At its recent EMC World user conference, EMC CEO Joe Tucci predicted that the cost of SSD technology will be at parity with top-shelf Fibre Channel disk drives within two to three years.

Sun's outlook is, well, a bit sunnier.

Fowler made some bold predictions that he believes will come to fruition by year-end, including rapid customer adoption, a complete change in array designs, and the displacement of proprietary storage hardware with general-purpose gear over the next three years.

"You're going to see SSDs in the second half of this year. Getting these products to market this year is the mad scramble right now," says Fowler. "We think people will start using the technology as soon as it is shipping."

While performance-minded customers like those in the Web 2.0 space may be early adopters of flash drives, John Webster, principal IT advisor at Illuminata, believes traditional enterprise customers—who are notoriously risk averse when it comes to storage—will wait out the SSD hype cycle for proven products to make their way to market.

"The broader market, particularly the enterprise market, is going to take a bit longer to adopt SSD technology," he says. "It's very optimistic to say that the IT universe is going to turn on a dime and all of a sudden see incredible value in SSDs."

However, if Sun is to be believed and its products do what they say they can, there is value to be had. "For a slight increase in cost you get a huge reduction in the power that it takes to run a machine with roughly three times the performance and a 100% increase in raw capacity. It's a compelling argument," says Webster.

Once available, the new flash disks integrated in storage systems and servers will be available for no-risk trials at no charge under Sun's Try and Buy program.

This article was originally published on June 05, 2008