In the enterprise segment where 1U and 2U servers are common, PCI Express SSDs are very attractive. You may not always have a ton of 2.5″ drive bays but theres usually at least one high-bandwidth PCIe slot unused. The RevoDrive family of PCIe SSDs were targeted at the high-end desktop or workstation market, but for an enterprise-specific solution OCZ has its Z-Drive line.
Anandtech is breaking new ground covering some Enterprise level segments of the Solid State Disk industry. While I doubt he’ll be doing ratings of Violin and Texas Memory Systems gear very soon, the OCZ low end Enterprise PCIe cards is still beginning to approach that target. We’re talking $10,000 USD and up for anyone who wants to participate. Which puts it in the middle to high end of Fusion-io and barely touches the lower end of Violin and TMS not to mention Virident. Given that, it is still wild to see what kind of architecture and performance optimization one gets for the money they pay. SandForce rules the day at OCZ for anything requiring the top speeds for write performance. It’s also interesting to find out about the SandForce 25xx series use of super-capacitors to hold enough reserve power to flush the write caches on a power outage. It’s expensive, but moves the product up a few notches in the Enterprise level reliability scale.
After more than one year of being announced Angelbird has designed and manufactured a new PCIe flash card. The design of which is full expandable over time depending on your budget needs. Fusion-io has a few ‘expandable’ cards in its inventory too, but the price class of Fusion-io is much higher than the consumer level Angelbird product. So if you cannot afford to build a 1TB flash-based PCIe card, do not worry. Buy what you can and outfit it later over time as your budget allows. Now that’s something any gamer fanboy or desktop enthusiast can get behind.
Angelbird does warn in advance power demands for typical 2.5″ SATA flash modules are higher than what the PCIe bus can provide typically. They recommend using their own memory modules to add onto their base level PCIe card. Up until I read those recommendations I had forgotten some of the limitations and workarounds Graphics Card manufacturers typical use. These have become so routine that there are now 2-3 extra power taps provided even by typical desktop manufacturers for their desktop machines. All this to accommodate the extra graphics chip power required by today’s display adapters. It makes me wonder if Angelbird could do a Rev. of the base level PCIe card with a little 4-pin power input or something similar. It’s doesn’t need another 150watts, it’s going to be closer to 20watts for this type of device I think. I wish Angelbird well and I hope sales start strong so they can sell out their first production run.
By bypassing the SATA bottleneck, OCZs RevoDrive Hybrid promises transfer speeds up to 910 MB/s and up to 120,000 IOPS 4K random write. The SSD aspect reportedly uses a SandForce SF-2281 controller and the hard drive platters spin at 5,400rpm. On a whole, the hybrid drive makes good use of the companys proprietary Virtualized Controller Architecture.
Good news on the Consumer Electronics front, OCZ continues to innovate on the desktop aftermarket introducing a new PCIe Flash product that marries a nice 1TByte Hard Drive to a 100GB flash-based SSD. The best of both worlds all in one neat little package. Previously you might buy these two devices seperately, 1 average sized Flash drive and 1 spacious Hard drive. Then you would configure the Flash Drive as your System boot drive and then using some kind of alias/shortcut trick have the Hard drive as your user folder to hold videos, pictures, etc. This has caused some very conservative types to sit out and wait for even bigger Flash drives hoping to store everything on one logical volume. But what they really want is a hybrid of big storage and fast speed and that according to the press release is what the OCZ Hybrid Drive delivers. With a SandForce drive controller and two drives the whole architecture is hidden away along with the caching algorithm that moves files between the flash and hard drive storage areas. To the end user, they see but one big Hard drive (albeit installed in one of their PCI card slots), but experience the faster bootup times, faster application loading times. I’m seriously considering adding one of these devices into a home computer we have and migrating the bootdrive and user home directories over to that, using the current hard drives as the Windows backup device. I think that would be a pretty robust setup and could accommodate a lot of future growth and expansion.
OCZ says it is available for evaluation now by OEMs and, we presume, OCZ will be using it in its own flash products. Were looking at 1TB SSDs using TLC flash, shipping sequential data out at 500MB/sec which boot quickly, and could be combined to provide multi-TB flash data stores. Parallelising data access would provide multi-GB/sec I/O. The flash future looks bright.
Who knew pairing an ARM core with the drive electronics for a Flash based SSD could be so successful. Not only are the ARM chips helping to drive the cpus on our handheld devices, they are now becoming the SSD Drive controllers too! If OCZ is able to create these drive controllers with good yields (say 70% on the first run) then they are going to hopefully give themselves a pricing advantage and get a higher profit margin per device sold. This is assuming they don’t have to pay royalties for the SandForce drive controller on every device they ship.
If OCZ was able to draw up their own drive controller, I would be surprised. However, since they have acquired Indilinx it seems like they are making good on the promise held by Indilinx’s current crop of drive controllers. Let’s just hope they are able to match the performance of SandForce at the same price points as well. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a kind of patent machine that will allow OCZ to wage lawsuits against competitors for Intellectual Property they acquired through the acquisition of Indilinx. And we have seen too much of that recently with Apple’s secret bid for Nortel’s patent pool and Google’s acquisition of Motorola.
This is the shortest presentation I’ve seen and most pragmatic about what SSDs can do for you. He recommends buying Intel 320s and getting your feet wet by moving from a bicycle to a Ferrari. Later on if you need to go with a PCIe SSD do it, but it’s like the difference between a Formula 1 race car and a Ferrari. Personally in spite of the lack of major difference Artur is trying to illustrate I still like the idea of buying once and getting more than you need. And if this doesn’t start you down the road of seriously buying SSDs of some sort check out this interview with Violin Memory CEO, Don Bazile:
Basile said: “Larry is telling people to use flash … That’s the fundamental shift in the industry. … Customers know their competitors will adopt the technology. Will they be first, second or last in their industry to do so? … It will happen and happen relatively quickly. It’s not just speed; its the lowest cost of data base transaction in history. [Flash] is faster and cheaper on the exact same software. It’s a no-brainer.”
Violin Memory is the current market leader in data center SSD installations for transactional data or analytical processing. The boost folks are getting from putting the databases on Violin Memory boxes is automatic, requires very little tuning and the results are just flat out astounding. The ‘Larry’ quoted above is the Larry Ellison of Oracle, the giant database maker. So with that kind of praise I’m going to say the tipping point is near, but please read the article. Chris Mellor lays out a pretty detailed future of evolution in SSD sales and new product development. 3-bit Multi-Level memory cells in NAND flash is what Mellor thinks will be the tipping point as price is still the biggest sticking point for anyone responsible for bidding on new storage system installs. However while that price sticking point is a bigger issue for batch oriented off-line data warehouse analysis, for online streaming analysis SSD is cheaper per byte per second throughput. So depending on the typical style of database work you do or performance you need SSD is putting the big iron spinning hard disk vendors to shame. The inertia of these big capital outlays and cozy relationships with these vendors will make some shops harder to adopt the new technology (But IBM is giving us such a big discount!…WE are an EMC shop,etc.). However the competitors of the folks owning those datacenters will soon eat all that low hanging fruit a simple cutover to SSDs will afford and the competitive advantage will swing to the early adopters.
*Late Note: Chris Mellor just followed up Monday night (June 27th) with an editorial further laying out the challenge to disk storage presented by the data center Flash Array vendors. Check it out:
What should the disk drive array vendors do, if this scenario plays out?They should buy in or develop their own all-flash array technology. Having a tier of SSD storage in a disk drive array is a good start but customers will want the simpler choice of an all-flash array and, anyway, they are here now. Guys like Violin and Whiptail and TMS are knocking on the storage array vendors customer doors right now.
Theres a new PCIe SSD in town: the RevoDrive 3. Armed with two SF-2281 controllers and anywhere from 128 – 256GB of NAND 120/240GB capacities, the RevoDrive 3 is similar to its predecessors in that the two controllers are RAIDed on card. Heres where things start to change though.
OCZ is back with a revision of its consumer grade PCIe SSD, the RevoDrive. This time out the SandForce SF-2281 makes an appearance and to great I/O effect. The bus interface is a true PCIe bridge chip as opposed to the last versions PCI-X to PCIe bridge. Also this device can be controlled completely through the OSes own drive utilities and TRIM support. All combined this is the most natively and well support PCIe SSD to hit the market. No benchmarks yet from a commercially shipping product. But my fingers are crossed that this thing is going to be faster than OCZ’s Vertex 3 and Vertex 3 Pro (I hope) while possibly holding more flash memory chips than those SATA 6 based SSDs.
One other upshot of this revised product is full OS booting support. So not only will TRIM work but your motherboard and the PCIe’s card electronics will allow you to boot directly off of the card. So this is by far the most evolved and versatile PCIe based SSD drive to date. Pricing is the next big question on my mind after reading the specifications. Hopefully will not be Enterprise grade (greater than $1200). I’ve found most off the prosumer and gamer market upgrade manufacturers are comfortable setting prices at the $1200 price point for these PCIe SSDs. And that trend has been pretty reliable going back to the original RevoDrive.
Theres another issue holding users back from the Vertex 3: capacity. The Vertex 3 is available in 120, 240 and 480GB versions, there is no 60GB model. If you’re on a budget or like to plan frequent but rational upgrades, the Vertex 3 can be a tough sell.
OCZ apart from having the fastest SSD on the market now is attempting to branch out and down market simultaneously. And by down market I don’t mean anything other than the almighty PRICE. It’s all about the upgrade market for the PC Fan boys that want to trade up to get the next higher performing part for their gaming computer (If people still do that, play games on their PeeCees). Performance-wise it is designed to be less expensive and this SSD shows that it is not the highest speed part. So if you demand to own an OCZ branded SSD and won’t settle for anything less, but you don’t want to pay $499 to get it, the Agility 3 is just for you. Also if you read the full review the charts will show how all the current generation SATA 6 drives are shaping up (Intel included) versus the previous generation SATA 2.0 drives (3Gbytes/sec). OCZ Vertex 3 is still the king of the mountain at the 240GB size, but is still very much at a price premium.
A flash array controller needs: “An architecture built from the ground up around SSD technology that sizes cache, bandwidth, and processing power to match the IOPS that SSDs provide while extending their endurance. It requires an architecture designed to take advantage of SSDs unique properties in a way that makes a scalable all-SSD storage solution cost-effective today.”
I think that Storage Controllers are the point of differentiation now for the SSDs coming on the market today. Similarly the device that ties those SSDs into the comptuer and its OS are equally, nay more important. I’m thinking specifically about a product like the SandForce 2000 series SSD controllers. They more or less provide a SATA or SAS interface into a small array of flash memory chips that are made to look and act like a spinning hard drive. However, time is coming soon now where all those transitional conventions can just go away and a clean slate design can go forward. That’s why I’m such a big fan of the PCIe based flash storage products. I would love to see SandForce create a disk controller with one interface that speaks PCIe 2.0/3.0 and the other is just open to whatever technology Flash memory manufacturers are using today. Ideally then the Host Bus would always be a high speed PCI Express interface which could be licensed or designed from the ground up to speed I/O in and out of the Flash memory array. On the memory facing side it could be almost like an FPGA made to order according to the features, idiosyncrasies of any random Flash Memory architecture that is shipping at the time of manufacture. Same would apply for any type of error correction and over-provisioning for failed memory cells as the SSD ages through multiple read/write cycles.
In this article I quoted at the top from The Register, the big storage array vendors are attempting to market new products by adding Flash memory to either one component of the whole array product or in the case off EMC the whole product uses Flash memory based SSDs throughout. That more aggressive approach has seemed to be overly cost prohibitive given the manufacturing cost of large capacity commodity hard drives. But they problem is, in the market where these vendors compete, everyone pays an enormous price premium for the hard drives, storage controllers, cabling and software that makes it all work. Though the hard drive might be cheaper to manufacture, the storage array is not and that margin is what makes Storage Vendors a very profitable business to be in. As stated last week in the benchmark comparisons of High Throughput storage arrays, Flash based arrays are ‘faster’ per dollar than a well designed, engineered top-of-the-line hard drive based storage array from IBM. So for the segment of the industry that needs the throughput more than the total space, EMC will likely win out. But Texas Memory Systems (TMS) is out there too attempting to sign up OEM contracts with folks attempting to sell into the Storage Array market. The Register does a very good job surveying the current field of vendors and manufacturers trying to look at which companies might buy a smaller company like TMS. But the more important trend being spotted throughout the survey is the decidedly strong move towards native Flash memory in the storage arrays being sold into the Enterprise market. EMC has a lead, that most will be following real soon now.
One might ask a simple question, how is this even possible given the cost of the storage media involved. How is it a Flash based storage array from RamSan beat a huge pile of IBM hard drives all networked and bound together in a massive storage system? And how did it do it for less? Woe be to those unschooled in the ways of the Per-feshunal Data Center purchasing dept. You cannot enter the halls of the big players unless you got million dollar budgets for big iron servers and big iron storage. Fibre Channel and Infiniband rule the day when it comes to big data throughput. All those spinning drives accessed simultaneously as if each one held one slice of the data you were asking for, each one delivering up it’s 1/10 of 1% of the total file you were trying to retrieve. And the resulting speed makes it look like one hard drive that is 10X10 faster than your desktop computer hard drive all through the smoke and mirrors of the storage controllers and the software that makes them go. But what if, just what if we decided to take Flash memory chips and knit them together with a storage controller that made them appear to be just like a big iron storage system? Well since Flash obviously costs something more than $1 per gigabyte and disk drives cost somewhere less than 10 cents per gigabyte the Flash storage loses right?
In terms of total storage capacity Flash will lose for quite some time when you are talking about holding everything on disk all at the same time. But that is not what’s being benchmarked here at all. No, in fact what is being benchmarked is the rate at which Input (writing of data) and Output (reading of data) is done through the storage controllers. IOPS measure the total number of completed reads/writes done in a given amount of time. Previous to this latest example of the RamSan-630, IBM was king of the mountain with it’s huge striped Fibre Channel arrays all linked up through it’s own storage array controllers. RamSan came in at 400,503.2 IOPS as compared to IBM’s top of the line San Volume Controller with 380,489.3. That’s not very much difference you say, especially considering how much smaller the amount of data a RamSan can hold,… And that would be a valid argument but consider again, that’s not what we’re benchmarking it is the IOPS.
Total cost for the IBM benchmarked system per IOP was $18.83. RamSan (which best IBM in total IOPS) was a measly $1.05 per IOP. The cost is literally 95% less than IBM’s cost. Why? Consider the price (even if it was steeply discounted as most Tech Writers will say as a cavea) for IBM’s benchmarked system costs $7.17Million dollars. Remember I said you need million dollar budgets to play in the data center space. Now consider the RamSan-630 costs $419,000. If you want speed, dump your spinning hard drives, Flash is here to stay and you cannot argue with the speed versus the price at this level of performance. No doubt this is going to threaten the livelihood of a few big iron storage manufacturers. But through disruption, progress is made.
Prior to SandForce‘s arrival, Indilinx was regarded as the leading makers of controllers for solid-state drives. The company gained both consumer and media favoritism when it demonstrated that drives based on its own controllers were competitive with lead drives made by Intel. Indilinx’s controllers allowed many SSD manufacturers to bring SSD prices down to a level where a large number of mainstream consumers started to take notice.
This is surprising news especially following the announcement and benchmark testing of OCZ’s most recent SSD drives. They are the highest performing SATA based SSDs on the market and the boost in speed is derived primarily from their drive controller chip supplied by SandForce not Indilinx. Buying a competing manufacturer no doubt is going to disappoint their suppliers at SandForce. And I worry a bit that SandForce’s technical lead is something that even a good competitor like Indilinx won’t be able to overcome. I’m sticking with any drive that has the SandForce disk controller inside due to their track record of increasing performance and reliability with each new generation of product.
So I am of two minds, I guess it’s cool OCZ has enough power and money to provide its own drive controllers for its SSDs. But at the same time, the second place drive controller is a much slower, lower performance part than the top competitor. In future I hope OCZ is either able to introduce price variation by offering up SandForce vs. Indilinx based SSDs and charge less for Indilinx. If not, I don’t know how they will technologically achieve superiority now that SandForce has such a lead.