Category Archives: Flash

Solid State Storage: Enterprise State Of Affairs

Here In A Flash!

Its been a crazy last few years in the flash storage space. Things really started taking off around 2006 when NAND flash and moores law got together. in 2010 it was clear that flash storage was going to be a major part of your storage makeup in the future. It may not be NAND flash specifically though. It will be some kind of memory and not spinning disks.

Breaking The Cost Barrier.

For the last few years, I’ve always told people to price out on the cost of IO not the cost of storage. Buying flash storage was mainly a niche product solving a niche problem like to speed up random IO heavy tasks. With the cost of flash storage at or below standard disk based SAN storage with all the same connectivity features and the same software features I think it’s time to put flash storage on the same playing field as our old stalwart SAN solutions.

Right now at the end of 2012, you can get a large amount of flash storage. There is still this perception that it is too expensive and too risky to build out all flash storage arrays. I am here to prove at least cost isn’t as limiting a factor as you may believe. Traditional SAN storage can run you from 5 dollars a Gigabyte to 30 dollars a Gigabyte for spinning disks. You can easily get into an all flash array in that same range.

Here’s Looking At You Flash.

This is a short list of flash vendors currently on the market. I’ve thrown in a couple non-SAN types and a couple traditional SAN’s that have integrated flash storage in them. Please, don’t email me complaining that X vendor didn’t make this list or that Y vendor has different pricing. All the pricing numbers were gathered from published sources on the internet. These sources include, the vendors own website, published costs from TPC executive summaries and official third party price listings. If you are a vendor and don’t like the prices listed here then publicly publish your price list.

There are always two cost metrics I look at dollars per Gigabyte in raw capacity and dollars per Gigabyte in usable capacity. The first number is pretty straight forward. The second metric can get tricky in a hurry. On a disk based SAN that pretty much comes down to what RAID or protection scheme you use. Flash storage almost always introduces deduplication and compression which can muddy the waters a bit.

Fibre Channel/iSCSI vendor list

Nimbus Data

Appearing on the scene in 2006, they have two products currently on the market. the S-Class storage array and the E-Class storage array.

The S-Class seems to be their lower end entry but does come with an impressive software suite. It does provide 10GbE and Fibre Channel connectivity. Looking around at the cost for the S-Class I found a 2.5TB model for 25,000 dollars. That comes out to 9.7 dollars per Gigabyte in raw space. The S-Class is their super scaleable and totally redundant unit. I found a couple of quotes that put it in at 10.oo dollars a Gigabyte of raw storage. Already we have a contender!

Pure Storage

In 2009 Pure Storage started selling their flash only storage solutions. They include deduplication and compression in all their arrays and include that in the cost per Gigabyte. I personally find this a bit fishy since I always like to test with incompressible data as a worst case for any array. This would also drive up their cost. They claim between 5.00 and 10.00 dollars per usable Gigabyte and I haven’t found any solid source for public pricing on their array yet to dispute or confirm this number. They also have a generic “compare us” page on their website that at best is misleading and at worst plain lies. Since they don’t call out any specific vendor in their comparison page its hard to pin them for falsehoods but you can read between the lines.

Violin Memory

Violin Memory started in earnest around 2005 selling not just flash based but memory based arrays. Very quickly they transitioned to all flash arrays. They have two solutions on the market today. The 3000 series which allows some basic SAN style setups but also has direct attachments via external PCIe channels. It comes in at 10.50 dollars a Gigabyte raw and 12 dollars a Gigabyte usable. The 6000 series is their flagship product and the pricing reflects it. At 18.00 dollars per Gigabyte raw it is getting up there on the price scale. Again, not the cheapest but they are well established and have been used and are resold by HP.

Texas Memory Systems/IBM

If you haven’t heard, TMS was recently purchased by IBM. Based in Houston, TX I’ve always had a soft spot for them. They were also the first non-disk based storage solution I ever used. The first time I put a RamSan in and got 200,000 IO’s out of the little box I was sold. Of course it was only 64 Gigabytes of space and cost a small fortune. Today they have a solid flash based fibre attached and iSCSI attached lignup. I couldn’t find any pricing on the current flagship RamSan 820 but the 620 has been used in TPC benchmarks and is still in circulation. It is a heavy weight at 33.30 dollars a Gigabyte of raw storage.

Skyera

A new entrant into this space they are boasting some serious cost savings. They claim a 3.00 dollar per Gigabyte usable on their currently shipping product. The unit also includes options for deduplication and compression which can drive the cost down even further. It is also a half depth 1U solution with a built-in 10GbE switch. They are working on a fault tolerant unit due out second half of next year that will up the price a bit but add Fibre Channel connectivity. They have a solid pedigree as they are made up of the guys that brought the Sanforce controllers to market. They aren’t a proven company yet, and I haven’t seen a unit or been granted access to one ether. Still, I’d keep eye on them. At those price points and the crazy small footprint it may be worth taking a risk on them.

IBM

I’m putting the DS3524 on a separate entry to give you some contrast. This is a traditional SAN frame that has been populated with all SSD drives. With 112 200 GB drives and a total cost of 702908.00 it comes in at 31.00 a Gigabyte of raw storage. On the higher end but still in the price range I generally look to stay in.

SUN/Oracle

I couldn’t resist putting in a Sun F5100 in the mix. at 3,099,000.00 dollars it is the most expensive array I found listed. It has 38.4 Terabytes of raw capacity giving us a 80.00 dollars per Gigabyte price tag. Yikes!

Dell EqualLogic

When the 3Par deal fell apart Dell quickly gobbled up EqualLogic, a SAN manufacturer that focused on iSCSI solutions. This isn’t a flash array. I wanted to add it as contrast to the rest of the list. I found a 5.4 Terabyte array with a 7.00 dollar per Gigabyte raw storage price tag. Not horrible but still more expensive that some of our all flash solutions.

Fusion-io

What list would be complete without including the current king of the PCIe flash hill Fusion-io. I found a retail price listing for their 640 Gigabyte Duo card at 19,000 dollars giving us a 29.00 per usable Gigabyte. Looking at the next lowest card the 320 Gigabyte Duo at 7495.00 dollars ups the price to 32.20 per useable Gigabyte. They are wicked fast though :)

So Now What?

Armed with a bit of knowledge you can go forth and convince your boss and storage team that a SAN array fully based on flash is totally doable from a cost perspective. It may mean taking a bit of a risk but the rewards can be huge.

 

Moore’s Law May Be The Death of NAND Flash

"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." -  Mark Twain

I try and keep this quote in my mind whenever I’m teaching about new technologies. You often hear the same things parroted over and over again long after they quit being true. This problem is compounded by fast moving technologies like NAND Flash.

If you have read my previous posts about Flash memory you are already aware of NAND flash endurance and reliability. Just like CPU’s manufacturing processes flash receive boost in capacity as you decrease the size of the transistors/gates used on the device. In CPU’s you get increases in speed, on flash you get increases in size. The current generation of flash manufactured on a 32nm process. This nets four gigabytes per die. Die size isn’t the same as chip, or package size. Flash dies are actually stacked in the actual chip package giving us sixteen gigabytes per package. With the new die shrink to 25nm we double the size to eight gigabytes and thirty two gigabytes respectively. That sounds great, but there is a dark side to the ever shrinking die. As the size of the gate gets smaller it becomes more unreliable and has less endurance than the previous generation. MLC flash suffers the brunt of this but SLC isn’t completely immune.

Cycles And Errors

One of the things that always comes up when talking about flash is the fact it wears out over time. The numbers that always get bantered about are SLC is good for 100,000 writes to a single cell and MLC dies at 10,000 cycles. This is one of those things that just ain’t so any more. Right now the current MLC main stream flash based on the 32nm process write cycles are down to 5000 or so. 25nm cuts that even further to 3000 with higher error rates to boot.

Several manufactures has announced the transition to 25nm on their desktop drives. Intel and OCZ being two of the biggest. Intel is a partner with Micron. They are directly responsible for developing and manufacturing quite a bit of the NAND flash on the market. OCZ is a very large consumer of that product. So, what do you do to offset the issues with 25nm? Well, the same thing you did to offset that problem with 32nm, more spare area and more ECC. At 32nm it wasn’t unusual to see 24 bits of ECC per 512 bytes. Now, I’ve seen numbers as high as 55 bits per 512 bytes to give 25nm the same protection.

To give you an example here is OCZ’s lineup with raw and usable space listed.

Drive Model Production Process Raw Capacity (in GB) Affected Capacity (in GB)
OCZSSD2‐2VTXE60G 25nm 64 55
OCZSSD2‐2VTX60G 32nm 64 60
OCZSSD2‐2VTXE120G 25nm 128 118
OCZSSD2‐2VTX120G 32nm 128 120

As you can clearly see the usable space is significantly decreased. There is a second problem specific to the OCZ drives as well. Since they are now using higher density modules they are only using half as many of them. Since most SSD’s get their performance from multiple read/write channels cutting that in half isn’t a good thing.

SLC is less susceptible to this issue but it is happening. At 32nm SLC was still in the 80,000 to 100,000 range for write cycles but the error rate was getting higher. At 25nm that trend continues and we are starting to see some of the same techniques used in MLC coming to SLC as ECC creeps up from 1 bit per 512 bytes to 8 bits or more per 512 bytes. Of course the down side to SLC is it is half the capacity of MLC. As die shrinks get smaller SLC may be the only viable option in the enterprise space.

It’s Non-Volatile… Mostly

Another side effect of shrinking the floating gate size is the loss of charge due to voltage bleed off over time. When I say “over time” I’m talking weeks or months and not years or decades anymore. The data on these smaller and smaller chips will have to be refreshed every few weeks. We aren’t seeing this severe an issue at the 25nm level but it will be coming unless they figure out a way to change the floating gate to prevent it.

Smaller Faster Cheaper

If you look at trends in memory and CPU you see that every generation the die gets smaller, capacity or speed increases and they become cheaper as you can fit double the chips on a single wafer. There are always technical issues to overcome with every technology. But NAND flash is the only one that gets so inherently so unreliable at smaller and smaller die sizes. So, does this mean the end of flash? In the short term I don’t think so. The fact is we will have to come up with new ways to reduce writes and add new kinds of protection and more advanced ECC. On the pricing front we are still in a position where demand is outstripping supply. That may change somewhat as 25nm manufacturing ramps up and more factories come online but as of today, I wouldn’t expect a huge drop in price for flash in the near future. If it was just a case of SSD’s consuming the supply of flash it would be a different matter. The fact is your cell phone, tablet and every other small portable device uses the exact same flash chips. Guess who is shipping more, SSDs or iPhones?

So, What Do I Do?

The easiest thing you can do is read the label. Check what manufacturing process the SSD is using. In some cases like OCZ that wasn’t a straight forward proposition. In most cases though the manufacturer prints raw and formatted capacities on the label. Check the life cycle/warranty of the drive. Is it rated for 50 gigabytes of writes or 5 terabytes of writes a day? Does it have a year warranty or 5 years? These are indicators of how long the manufacturer expects the drive to last. Check the error rate! Usually the error rate will be expressed in unrecoverable write or read errors per bit. Modern hard drives are in the 10^15 ~ 10^17 range. Some enterprise SSDs are in the 10^30 range. This tells me they are doing more ECC than the flash manufacturer “recommends” to keep your data as safe as possible.