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EMC launches 'Project Lightning' PCIe cards

'Project Thunder' to follow in Q2 as an all-flash appliance

EMC today launched its long-awaited "Project Lightning," now called the VFCache product line, an initiative to sell PCIe-based NAND flash cards for servers as a caching element to increase I/O performance by up to 4,000 times.

The company also announced "Project Thunder," which in the second quarter will have EMC selling appliances filled with 15TB or more of PCIe-based NAND flash storage. The appliances will be connected to server farms through the InfiniBand network protocol. The appliances will hold five, 10 or 15 PCIe cards, according to EMC.

"You can think of it as a big, sharable, scalable VFCache card," said Mark Sorenson, senior vice president of EMC's Flash Business Unit. "We're talking hundreds of millions of [I/Os per second]."

VFCache cards are based on high-end, single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash as opposed to more popular multi-level cell (MLC) flash, which has higher capacity points but natively lower performance and endurance.

Currently, EMC also sells solid-state drives (SSDs) in a 2.5-in form factor using a SAS interface in its storage arrays. Sorenson said the company will transition this year to MLC-based SSDs in its arrays, which are less expensive and -- when combined with special firmware -- can achieve enterprise-class endurance levels.

Today, EMC announced it has shipped over 24 petabytes of NAND flash capacity through its array sales, which represents an 800% growth rate from 2009 to 2011.

EMC's new VFCache PCIe cards, which are primarily being supplied to EMC by Micron Technology , will come in 300GB capacities; Sorenson said EMC expects to ship 700GB cards this summer, though he believes 300GB is "the sweet spot."

VFCache card sales, which will be offered by EMC and through channel partners, will be focused on read-intensive application servers, as might be found in Oracle and SQL databases, Sharepoint or even Exchange environments.

Sorenson made it clear that the flash cards should not be thought of as primary storage, which is more data-write intensive and should be left to EMC's networked storage arrays. The cards are NAND flash cache.

EMC is reselling a version of Micron's P320h product in a half-height, half-length form factor. It has a maximum sequential read performance of 3.2GB/sec using 128K blocks. It can generate up to 715,000 IOPS using 4K random blocks, according to EMC.

Micron's P320h SSD.

VFCache cards install into a server's standard PCIe slot, and come with a filter driver that runs in the host server. As the host issues an I/O operation, the VFCache driver intercepts it, checks the table in its memory as to what data is in the cache, and if the data is on the flash memory it serves that I/O read request from the server; If the data is not in cache memory, the driver sends a read or write request through the storage area network to an EMC storage array.

Sorenson said VFCache has not been qualified to operate with other vendors' storage arrays, but there's no reason it shouldn't. It is, however, optimized to work with EMC storage, he said. "There's no vendor lock-in with this product.

Sorenson also suggested that the new PCIe cards are not well suited for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and server virtualization environments, saying those operations are best served by networked storage arrays."

"VDI is OK to use with this, but there are typically more writes in that environment than are optimum for this," he said. "With virtual environments, it depends on the use case and the application running in that environment."

Matthew Brisse, an analyst with research firm Gartner, said SSD is really changing the dynamics of the data center for storage. "It's changing the way customers are architecting storage and changing SAN topologies," Brisse said. "We're seeing pressure being put on traditional SAN models."

Brisse said EMC's Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST) software, which migrates data to various types of storage within an array -- SSD, Fibre Channel and SAS or SATA hard drives -- actually becomes an I/O bottleneck for virtual environments.

Brisse referred to VDI environments as "I/O blenders" where hundreds or thousands of workstations require a tremendous amount of I/OPS. "When you throw that into a tiering system [like EMC's FAST], its got to start serving all those random I/Os to the FAST Cache. Those algorithms will slow it down," he said.

"If you put the SSD into the server, that's were we're seeing the efficiency of scale," he added.

VFCache cards, which EMC announced were coming at its user conference last year, are similar to what Fusion-io sells, but have far less capacity. EMC would not reveal pricing for the drives, saying only that it will be aggressive in pricing against its competition.

Fusion-io sells PCIe-based flash cards that have capacities of up to 10TB and 1.3 million I/Os per second (IOPS) and 6.7GB/sec throughput .

Fusion-io CEO David Flynn said EMC's announcement validates what his company has been doing for years .

"They're using SLC, which is like three times more expensive on a per-gigabyte basis," he said. "They're probably going to try to spin that as a good thing, but SLC is so 2008 compared to MLC, even in the enterprise space."

Flynn quipped that EMC is using SLC because they're depending on Micron and other component vendors, who don't have the expertise to make MLC NAND flash as reliable as Fusion-io. "If they're buying a component through Micron, they have to pay the markup on it, which will make it four to six times what it costs us to make," he said.

Sorenson shot back that Fusion-io is selling direct-attached storage, and so it needs the high capacity points; EMC is selling a caching product that's complementary to backend networked storage.

An EMC spokesperson said the company anticipates coming in at a "slightly lower price than Fusion-io," though she would not say how much the company will charge per card.

"We tip our hat to Fusion-io," Sorenson said. "They were first into the PCIe market. They've done a nice job, but the big boys are coming and they're coming with more well-thought-out solutions. I'm afraid some of the flash vendors will be relegated to a component that will commoditize over time."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

Read more about storage in Computerworld's Storage Topic Center.


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