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Texas Memory Systems challenges high-end hard drives with new flash product

The single RamSan 1U array can generate up to 4Gbps of throughput

Texas Memory Systems (TMS), best known for its pricey, yet extremely high-performance NAND flash-based storage arrays, has introduced a new system that it said competes with Tier 1 hard drives on a price-per-gigabyte basis.

TMS's new RamSan-810 storage-area network (SAN) is a 1U (1.75-in.) array filled with enterprise-class multilevel cell (MLC) NAND flash cards. By using MLC NAND instead of pricier single-level cell (SLC) NAND, TMS said it was able to cut the price of the device in half on a per-gigabyte basis.

The RamSan-810

"So it allows us to hit price and density points that compete with Tier 1 enterprise storage instead of just Tier Zero storage," said Jamon Bowen, director of sales engineering at TMS.

Storage in enterprises is classified in tiers. Solid-state drives (SSD) or flash card technology are dubbed Tier Zero, Fibre Channel or SAS drives are considered Tier 1 (primary) storage, and higher-capacity, but slower, SATA drives are classified as Tier 2 (or "nearline") storage.

TMS is aiming its new RamSan at the Tier 1 storage market, which is lead by vendors such as EMC, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems and Hewlett-Packard.

According to Jim Handy, an analyst at market research firm Objective Analysis, TMS has been one of the last holdouts in the enterprise MLC (eMLC) space, sticking with SLC-only products longer than others.

Over the past few years, a number of startups, including Violin Memory and Nimbus Data Systems , have staked claims in the eMLC storage arena. TMS, however, is a venerated company founded in 1978 that has been selling flash storage since it opened for business.

"They're going down a road few other companies are going down in advocating that data center managers change their architecture to get rid of faster hard drives and just have slower hard drives for bulk of the storage and flash for everything else," Handy said.

TMS is targeting relational databases with its new storage device, just as Fibre Channel drives would be used as the primary storage.

There are two classes of MLC-based flash: consumer and the relatively new enterprise, or eMLC, which has emerged over the past year. The difference between the two is the number of times a drive can be filled to capacity -- or the number of "write cycles" that a drive can endure. In a typical consumer drive, that number varies between 3,000 and 5,000 write cycles, while an eMLC drive can endure an average of 30,000 write cycles, or roughly 10 times more than consumer MLC systems can support. In comparison a top-tier SLC-based SSD can endure up to 100,000 write cycles.

"Our unit is rated for 10 years of life," Bowen said. "That means a user can write 600MB/sec. for the lifetime of the RamSan 810, or 10TB five times per day for 10 years."

TMS said its new RamSan-810 flash array comes at a price of about $13 per gigabyte, including a maintenance license.

In comparison, TMS's high-end SLC-NAND based SAN -- the RamSan-710 -- runs about $26 a gigabyte. For example, the entry-level price for a RamSan-710 and RamSan-810 is about $45,000, but the entry-level 810 comes with 2TB versus 1TB in the 710 model. The RamSan-710, with its SLC-based NAND flash, is about 20% faster than TMS's eMLC product.

Handy said the price is competitive with Fibre Channel and SAS-based hard drive arrays.

The RamSan 810 also has impressive performance statistics. The array can generate a maximum of 320,000 I/Os per second (IOPS), or 4GB/sec bandwidth in a 1U enclosure. A full rack of RamSan-810s, which is 42U, can generate more than 1 million IOPS or almost 500GB/sec.

"Even short-stroking hard drives, you wouldn't get anything like that," said Handy, referring to the practice of using only the outer sector of a hard drive platter in order to achieve the highest-possible performance.

In each 1U RamSan-810 array, there are 20 flash cards, each with 400 NAND flash chips. Each chip has 32GB of capacity. Like the RamSan-710, the new 810 model reserves 30% of its flash capacity for RAID 5 data striping, where one flash chip in 10 is used for parity and the other nine store the data.

Also like its higher-end cousin, the RamSan-810 comes with dual ported 8Gbit/sec. Fibre Channel ports or two InfiniBand ports, along with redundant power and fans.

"This is better than Tier 1 type hard disk systems from EMC and NetApp in that it can fit 10TB into a 1U rack enclosure. We can see replacing entire racks of hard disk enclosures," Bowen said. "The fact is that we can get almost half a petabyte into one rack."

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 email address is [email protected] .

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


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