EMC execs: We'll drive SSD cost down 'as fast as we can'

Execs tout importance faster SSD drive technology will play at EMC World conference

EMC plans to play a big role in forcing the price of solid state disk (SSD) drives down as it deploys the technology throughout its family of enterprise-class disk storage arrays.

At the EMC World conference this week, both EMC CEO Joe Tucci and Dave Donatelli, EMC's executive vice president of storage platforms operations, and emphasized the importance that faster SSD drive technology will play at the highest level of enterprise-class primary storage and that SSDs will be on price parity with the highest performance Fibre Channel drives the end of 2010, beginning of 2011. "Over the next two years, all [data] recovery will come off disk ... not tape," Tucci said. "Tape is too slow."

EMC announced support for solid-state disk drives in its enterprise-class DMX array in January.

"The market for flash is coming down significantly faster than rotating drives right now," Donatelli said. "Our stated corporate goal is we're trying to drive it down as fast as we can."

One reason Donatelli believes EMC customers will embrace solid state disk over spinning disk is that currently that are "tons of customers" buying the most expensive 15K Fibre Channel drives for their arrays, but they're not fully utilizing the drive capacity because as their applications increase IOPS to a disk drive, the response time goes up "to a point that it is unacceptable for their applications."

So, Donatelli said, the work around for EMC customers is to purchase more drives and put less data on them in order to spread the I/Os out and drive up response time - a very costly fix.

Donatelli said "the beauty of flash" in EMC's arrays is that it has 30 times the IOPS compared to its best 15,000 rpm Fibre Channel drives. EMC is currently using drives that it developed in conjunction with STEC Inc.

STEC is currently facing a patent-infringement lawsuit from Seagate Technology over its solid state disk drives.

Asked about the lawsuit, Donatelli said EMC will also open itself up to using other manufacturers SSDs such as Intel-Micron and Samsung.

"First of all, the lawsuit has no bearing on it," Donatelli said. "And, our corporate strategy for years has been to be a multi-source. And we'll have the same strategy in this space."

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K.J. Burke, a systems engineer with Barrick Gold, a gold mining operation headquartered in Toronto, above other technology mentioned during keynote speeches, what caught his ear when Tucci mentioned EMC's intention to use more solid state disk. Because his company mines gold, servers and disk arrays are subject to dust and dirt being tracked in with administrators at offices located around the world, including facilities in rugged areas of Peru, Chile and Tanzania.

"We're already gone to more rugged Cisco routers. What I like about solid state disk is there are no moving parts to break down," he said. "Also, we pay about US$4 a kilowatt hour for power in our Tanzania location. We would pay the additional cost to purchase solid state disks just to be able to reduce the amount of power we use."

After some initial investigation into savings around solid state disk technology, Burke said he believes lower energy costs alone could wind up paying for additional midrange storage area networks to be installed in remote locations to ease data management headaches.

Mark Sorenson, EMC's senior vice president of information management technology, said SSDs will be a significant in the adoption of data deduplication technology, which he believes will be "as ubiquitous as RAID someday."

Sorenson said SSD technology, particularly on secondary disk backup systems, will be able to speed deduplication software's ability to seek out and eliminate data copies because it has no moving parts as disk drives do, such as an actuator arm that must move into position to retrieve data from a disk platter.

John Webster, principal IT adviser at research firm Illuminata Inc., said EMC may not be taking into account that Fibre Channel drives will also drop in price and increase in efficiency over the next two to three years as well, adding their own competitive advantage over SSDs. Webster also said SSD technology brings with it longevity problems in that there are only so many times an application can rewrite data to the cells in NAND memory before they wear out and become unreliable.

"I think it's too early to jump the gun on this," Webster said.

There are two major types of solid state memory: single-layer cell (SLC) NAND memory, which writes one bit per cell, and multi-layer cell (MLC) NAND memory, which writes two or more bits per cell. MLC offers greater density and lower cost, but because it writes multiple bits per cell, it also tends to wear out faster, according Avi Cohen, head of research at Avian Securities, in Boston. One fix for addressing the wear level of memory is larger SSD drives that offer more area on which to write data, but with more capacity comes greater cost, Cohen said.

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Another way of addressing memory life is something called "wear leveling," or the use of software to distribute data more evenly across the silicon so as to not wear out one area faster than another, and thereby prolonging the life of erasable computer storage memory. But wear-leveling software is still in its infancy.

Yet another issue facing SSD adoption is error correction, or the ability to fix errors caused by noise or other impairments during data transmission, which is more difficult to perform on more cost-effective MLC memory. Donatelli said EMC is using more reliable SLC NAND drives and has added a lot of its own intellectual property to the drives to ensure that they are as reliable as the Fibre Channel disk drives used in the Symmetrix arrays today.

"Part of the work we've been doing over this amount of time is working on things like write leveling, working on the algorithms," Donatelli said.

A lot of that work EMC performed on SSD over the past two years encompassed two areas: Symmetrix system changes to make sure the array could take advantage of SSD speed and IOPS capability; and drive reliability, ensuring it is reliable enough for the enterprise. "We've been working on this for two years. This is not simply take a drive off the shelf and plug it into the system and you're done," Donatelli said.