data center flash memory SSD technology

Netlist v. Diablo Technology settled, future of Flash Memory still evolving

Netlist and the Present

Netlist are the owners of the patent on key parts of Sandisk’s UtraDIMM technology (licensed from Diablo Technologies originally, I believe). While Netlist has lawsuits going back and forth regarding its intellectual property, it continued to develop products. Here now is the EXPRESSvaultTM EV3 announcement. It’s a PCI RAM disk of sorts that backs up the RAM with a ultracapacitor/battery combo. If power is lost an automated process backs up the RAM to onboard flash memory for safe keeping until power is restored. This design is intended to get around the disadvantages of using Flash memory as a disk and the wear and tear that occurs to flash when it is written to frequently. Less expensive flash memory suffers more degradation the more you write to it, eventually memory cells will fail altogether. By using the backing flash memory as failsafe, you will write to that flash only in the event of an emergency, thereby keeping the flash out of the grindstone of high levels of I/O. Note this is a very specific niche application of this technology but is very much the market for which Netlist has produced products in the past. This is their target market.

The Future is lower latencies-Enter UltraDIMM

Turn now to a recent announcement by Lenovo and it’s X6 server line announcing further adoption of the UltraDIMM technology. Lenovo at least is carrying on trying to sell this technology of Flash based memory interspersed with DRAMs. The idea of having “tiers” of storage with SSDs, UltraDIMMs and DRAM all acting in concert is the high speed future for the data center architect. Lucky for the people purchasing these things Netlist and Diablo’s legal wrangling began to sort itself out this Spring 2015:
With a final decision being made fairly recently:

Now Diablo and Sandisk and UltraDIMM can compete in the marketplace once more. And provide a competitive advantage to the people willing to spend the money for the UltraDIMM product. By itself UltraDIMM does make for some very interesting future uses. More broadly the adoption of an UltraDIMM like technology in laptops, desktops, tablets could see speed improvements across the board. Whether that happens or not is based more on the economics of BIOS and motherboard manufacturers than the merit of the design engineering of UltraDIMMs. More specifically Lenovo and IBM before that had to do a lot of work on the X6 servers to support the new memory technology. Which points to another article from the person I trust to collect all the news and information on storage worldwide, The Register’s Chris Mellor. I’ve followed his writing since about 2005 and really enjoyed his take on the burgeoning SSD market as new products were announced with faster I/O every month in the heady days of 2007 and beyond. Things have slowed down a bit now and PCIe SSDs are still the reference standard by which I/O benchmarks are measured. Fusion-io is now owned by Sandisk and everyone’s still enjoying the speed increases they get when buying these high end PCIe products. But it’s important to note for further increases to occur, just like with Sandisk’s use of UltraDIMM you have to keep pushing the boundaries. And that’s where Chris’s most recent article comes in.

Memory Meshes, Present and Future

Chris discusses the how Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface (NVMHCI) came about as a result of legacy carry-over from spinning hard drives in the AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) standard developed by Intel. AHCI and SATA (Serial ATA, the follow-on to ATA) both assumed spinning magnetic hard drives (and the speeds at which they push I/O) would be the technology used by a CPU to interact with it’s largest data store, the hard drive. Once that data store became flash memory, a new standard to drive faster access I/O and lower latencies needed to be invented. Enter the NVMe (Non-volatile Memory Express) interface, now being marketed and sold by some manufacturers. A native data channel from the PCI bus to your SSD however it may be designed, is the next big thing in hardware for SSDs. With the promise of better speeds it is worth migrating, once the manufacturers get onboard. But Chris’s article goes further to really look out beyond the immediate concerns of migrating from SATA to NVMe as even Flash memory may eventually be usurped by a different as yet unheard of technology. Given that’s the case, NVMe abstracts enough of the “media” of the non-volatile memory that it should allow future adoption of a number of possible technologies that could usurp the crown of NAND memory chips. And that potentially is a greater benefit than simply just squeezing out a few more Megabytes per second read and write speed. Even more tantalizing in Chris’s view is the mixing of DRAM and Flash memories in a “mesh” lets say of higher and lower speed memories like Fusion-io’s software uses to make the sharp distinction between DRAM and Flash less visible. In a sense, the speed would just come with the purchase of the technology, how it actually works would be the proverbial magic to the sysadmins and residents of Userland. - The Home of Storage Switzerland

The ever-increasing density of virtual infrastructures, and the need to scale databases larger than ever, is creating an ongoing need for faster storage. And while flash has become the “go to” performance option, there are environments that still need more. Nonvolatile DRAM is the heir apparent, but it often requires customized motherboards to implement, for which widespread availability could be years away. Netlist, pioneer of NVRAM, has introduced a product that is viable for most data centers right now: the EXPRESSvaultTM EV3.

The Flash Problem

While flash has solved many performance problems, it also creates a few. First there is a legitimate concern over flash wear, especially if the environment is write-heavy. There is also a concern about performance. While flash is fast compared to hard disk drives it’s slow when compared to RAM, especially, again, on writes.

But flash does have two compelling advantages over DRAM. First it is…

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IBM Goes Modular And Flashy With X6 Systems – Timothy Prickett Morgan

The memory channel storage modules were developed by SanDisk in conjunction with Diablo Technologies, and are called UltraDIMM by SanDisk. The modules put flash memory created by SanDisk (which has a flash partnership with Toshiba) that has a SATA interface on a memory stick. Diablo has created a chipset that converts the SATA protocol to the DDR3 main memory protocol, and SanDisk has created a driver for a server BIOS that makes it look like a normal disk storage device to the system and its operating system. (Enterprise Tech – Timothy Prickett Morgan)
Image representing Diablo Technologies as depi...
Image by None via CrunchBase

Big news, big news coming to a server near you. A new form factor Flash Memory product has been secretly developed and is being sampled by folks out East in the High Frequency Stock Trading market (the top of the food chain in IT needs for latency speed of transactions). Timothy Prickett Morgan (formerly of The Register) has included details from IBM‘s big annoouncement of its Intel based X6 series servers. This new form factor is the result of a memory controller made by Diablo Technologies. SanDisk has engineered the actual final product that ties the memory into the Diablo designed memory controller. However this product is not available on the open market and has been going through sampling and testing with possible high end end users and customers who have need for such a large, high speed product in a DDR DRAM memory module. Sizes, and speeds are pretty large all around. The base modules come in 200GB or 400GB form factors and fit a typical DDR-3 DIMM module. IBM and SanDisk have done a number of special tweaks on the software/firmware to pull the most I/O with the lowest latency out of these modules when installed on an X6 server. The first-gen X6 will have roughly 12 DIMM slots available with some DRAM and Ultra-DIMMs populating those slots. However things get REALLY interesting when the second-gen X6 hits the market. IBM will be doubling the amount of DIMM slots to 24 and will be upping the core count available on the 4U top of the line x6 server. When that product hits the market the Ultra-DIMM will be able to populate the majority of the DIMM slots and really start to tear it up I think when it comes to I/O and analytics processing. SanDisk is the exclusive supplier, manufacturer and engineering outfit for this product for IBM with no indication yet of when/if they would ever sell it to another OEM server manufacturer.

Given the promise this technology has and that an outfit like Diablo Technologies is vaugely reminiscent of an upstart like SandForce who equally upset the Flash Memory market about 6 years ago, we’re likely to see a new trend. SATA SSDs are still slowly creeping into the consumer market, PCIe Flash memory products are being adopted by the top end consumer market (Apple’s laptops and the newest desktops). Now we’ve got yet another Flash memory product that could potentiall sweep the market the Ultra-DIMM. It will however take some time and some competing technology to help push this along (SandForce was the only game in town early on and early adopters help subsidize the late adopters with higher prices). Given how pared back and stripped down DIMM slots are generally in the consumer market it may be a while before we see any manufacturers attempt to push Ultra-DIMM as a consumer product. Same goes for the module sizes as they are shipped today. Example: the iMac 27″, Apple has gone from being easily upgraded (back in the Silver Tower, G4 CPU days) to nearly not upgradeable (MacBook Air) and the amount of space needed in their cases to allow for addition or customization through an Ultra-DIMM add-on would be severly constrained. It might be something that could be added as a premium option for the newest Mac Pro towers. And even then that’s very hopeful and wishful thinking on my part. But who knows how quickly this new form factor and memory controller design will infiltrate the computer market? It is seemingly a better moustrap in the sense of the boost one sees in performance on a more similar, more commoditized Intel infrastructure. Wait and see what happens.

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