Flash storage has come a long way in the last few years -- a truly long way. And today’s flash storage vendors hope to capitalize on that trend.
Just ten years ago, if you wanted fast access storage, your only real option was 15,000 RPM drives, which had very low capacity -- usually 72GB to 144GB -- and they ran very hot and failed much more often than a 7,200 RPM drive. It was basic physics. The faster you spin something, the more likely it will be to break.
Fast-forward a decade, and solid state storage has matured to the point that enterprise vendors and customers alike are willing to bet the business on memory-based storage. What started out as a hard drive alternative for laptops is now powering high-performance enterprise storage systems, often acting as a fast cache to larger storage arrays.
There are numerous players in this field, but below is a mix of IT veterans with promising startups. Some of those start-ups may end up being acquired by the big players, because that's how many big players got into the storage array business.
One key differentiator is that some vendors offer multi-level cell (MLC) flash while others offer single-level cell (SCL) flash. SLC is faster and more durable but it also has lower capacity. MLC has improved its speed, reliability and wear levels to the point where MLC is now acceptable for enterprise applications. SLC is still used for the fastest I/O requirements.
Flash storage has come a long way and is now replacing 15k RPM drives. Who are the big flash storage vendors?
EMC/XtremIO –First launched last year, the software for XtremIO's all-flash array is up to version 3.0, which comes with new configuration types, higher scalability, better handling of higher workloads, and improved compression. EMC promises on deduplication, data protection and the fastest throughput available.
The company has two offerings, EP540 and EP550. Unlike its competitors, which use board-level drives, NetApp uses a traditional 2U storage array filled with 2.5-inch SAS SSD drives.
SanDisk/Fusion-io – SanDisk purchased Fusion-io earlier this year but thus far has not made any radical changes to the product line. Its key feature is the Dynamic Data Placement, which provides auto-tiering between flash and hard disks. It automatically moves hot blocks of data up into the flash layer, and moves cold blocks of data down to the hard disk layer.
Oracle/Pillar – crams a lot of flash into its Sparc and x86 servers, but it also offers a separate SAN block storage system called Pillar. Pillar's Axiom storage array line offers application-aware unified SAN and NAS functionality, and supports NAS, Fibre Channel, and iSCSI modules. Because of this, it mixes flash with spinning disks and allows for consolidate of all storage needs onto a single system.
An all-flash array, Kaminario aims to replace spinning disks with no-latency, high IOPS general-purpose scale-out all-flash arrays that will accelerate app performance while taking up less space than a traditional SAN. The company claims to be the only flash array to scale up and scale out.
IBM/Texas Memory Systems –TMS was the originator of SSD storage systems, coming out with its first drive in 1978. It introduced its first full line of SSDs in 2000. It uses SLC and eMLC, or enterprise multi-level cell drives. eMLC is designed for enterprise use and has a much lower error rate than typical MLCs. TMS offers SSD, DRAM caching and PCIe flash. Although now an IBM company, its Opera line was tuned specifically to accelerate Oracle databases.
Founded in 2009, Pure Storage built its enterprise storage products from the ground up to take full advantage of flash memory, rather than take disk-based storage and adapt it to flash. Pure claims it has reduced the cost of storage per gigabyte on flash to that of a hard disk. The company's products are designed to accelerate random I/O-intensive applications like server virtualization, database applications and cloud computing.
Cisco purchased Whiptail last year to complement its Unified Compute Systems. Unlike most array vendors that work with other vendors' products, Whiptail will be integrated into UCS to improve the performance of Cisco's fabric-computing domain. The software will integrate SSD storage as part of the overall system.
SolidFire – SolidFire designs and builds all-flash primary storage systems designed specifically for cloud service providers and next generation data centers. SolidFire focuses on special power efficiency technologies to reduce power, cooling, and capacity consumption, offering thousands of servers in a single storage system.
Nimbus Data Systems – Another all-flash vendor, the company uses MLC it claims can offer "quadruple-write performance" and "double-read performance," although it never said compared to what products. Its software offers dedupe, compression and provisioning to cut the price per gigabyte to $0.78, which it says is cheaper than hybrid storage arrays.