By Kevin Davies
January 31, 2012 | Could this be, as one senior IT staffer at a major genome center put it, “the beginning of the end of spinning media”?
This week, San Francisco-based Nimbus Data Systems launches its highest performance flash memory system, the E class. Nimbus says it is significantly more scalable than its forerunner, the S class. “It sets totally new records in the industry in terms of power consumption, cooling efficiency and density,” says Nimbus founder/CEO Thomas Isakovich. “It’s the most scalable flash system ever made, the smallest footprint ever made.”
“It’s a chance to reinvent storage for performance and efficiency,” he told Bio-IT World.
Exponential advances in many aspects of IT infrastructure in recent years – CPUs, networks, memory – have far exceeded improvements in disk rotational speed and power consumption. “We were increasingly becoming a disk-bound IT world,” he said. “There needed to be some new technology to effectively surpass disk in performance and efficiency. We believe that technology to be flash.”
Flash is making some waves in the supercomputing industry. Last year, the San Diego Supercomputer Center switched on Gordon, which employs 300 terabytes (TB) flash and is billed as “the world’s largest thumb drive.” But that is a fairly exceptional case for the moment.
When Isakovich launched Nimbus in 2006, he knew there were four major challenges for flash to overcome in order to realize its commercial potential. First, it is expensive, anywhere from 5- to 20X more expensive per TB than disk.
Second, flash memory has a finite life span, as each so-called ‘erase cycle’ decreases the capacity; the constituent cells eventually lose the ability to retain a consistent charge. “It will die at a given point in time. You must banish that life time in an enterprise environment,” said Isakovich.
Third is a lack of software providing data protection features such as replication and encryption. And fourth is scalability. While flash drives might be available up to 200 gigabytes (GB), “people in the storage business were used to going up to petabytes without blinking an eye.”
Isakovich set about solving those four challenges and building a next-gen storage system. His first company, a software start-up, was acquired in 2003. This time around, however, he elected not to raise any venture capital, because he “felt limited in what we could do if beholden to investors with a different, finite timescale.”
After raising money from angel investors, Nimbus launched a hybrid flash memory/traditional hard drive technology in 2008, and soon became profitable. Because flash memory was still exorbitant, Nimbus used it selectively as a cache technology “to derive some of the response-time benefits of flash while retaining a reasonable price point.”
Nimbus sold about 100 hybrid systems, while completing its first all-flash system in the first half of 2010, launched as S class solid-state “sustainable” storage.
The ‘S’ stands for speed and simplicity -- a single enclosure solution priced at $10/GB, able to support all protocols across various types of networking. “At that point, S class was close in line to what customers are paying for 15,000 rpm disk arrays,” says Isakovich. “We’d achieved price parity in a market where [flash] was previously 10X more expensive.”
Last summer, eBay bought more than 100 TB S class storage. “That made quite a few waves in industry,” Isakovich recalls. “Flash was [previously] used as an accelerator for disk, but not to actually replace it.”
[Flash memory is fabricated mostly in Japan and Korea by five major vendors – Toshiba, SANdisk, Samsung, Intel, and Micron. Consumer-grade flash, as found in smart phones, sustains only 1,000-2,000 erase cycles/cell before the flash can’t hold any more data. Enterprise flash can retain 30,000 erase cycles. At the top end – think space shuttle -- SLC (single-level cell) Flash handles about 100,000 erase cycles, and makes up about 1% of the worldwide market.]
Nimbus uses enterprise flash, but also high-quality silicon and special processors that guarantee the even quality of erase cells across the system, “so no one cell is hit harder with erases than another,” says Isakovich. “It’s like rotating tires on a car. It ensures even distribution of wear across the silicon… Each time we write data, we only erase one cell.” Nimbus conservatively guarantees the memory for five years.
The new E class system ranges from 10 to 500 TB capacity, or about 20X more than the prior record on flash scalability. “We’ve packed more capacity in one rack than ever before, close to 4X the density of traditional 15,000 rpm disk arrays,” says Isakovich. “You can consolidate 14 racks of disk and replace them with one rack of E class. It enables hyper-consolidation of equipment while withstanding very high performance.”
Flash also has genuine “Green IT” attributes. Power consumption is a meager 5 Watts/TB, about one fifth of the equivalent disk storage. Cooling costs are also slashed by about 80%, from 8,500 BPUs to 1,700 BPUs on flash. “This is a big deal,” says Isakovich, noting surveys suggesting that 35-37% power consumption in a typical data center is tied to storage. “Taking 80% out of there means cutting the data center power budget by 25%.” Given some estimates that 1% of the world’s total power consumption goes towards running data centers, Isakovich may not be far off when he claims: “You could reduce worldwide power by 0.25%!”
Another asset is that any component in the system – controller, power supply, fan or portion of the flash storage – can fail without disrupting the overall service. “It means you can update software and add additional storage capacity to the system while operational. There’s no need to ever take the system down,” says Isakovich.
The price of Nimbus’ flash memory scales linearly, starting at $10/GB, or $10,000/TB. At that scale, 1 PB E class storage would cost around $10 million. Isakovich certainly doesn’t envision high-end customers, including potentially major life science organizations and genome centers, moving everything to flash. “Much of their storage is fulfilled by slower disk arrays. SATA technology occupies a different performance level than flash… but the top 10-20%, very performance-sensitive storage, could be moved to flash.”
As for competitors, Isakovich says that in terms of disk scalability, performance, and price, “we’re the only game in town. Traditional disk vendors, e.g. EMC, NetApp, Dell, Oracle, HP, all are looking at flash and trying to decide how they want to enter the space. They’ve added some flash technology to accelerate their disk arrays, with a modest 20% improvement, but not the 10X improvement that an all flash system as ours offers.”
Another highly touted flash storage company is Fusion I/O, which makes flash that goes inside a server, as opposed to an external system. “They became the dominant player in server-side flash. We plan to follow in those footsteps,” says Isakovich.
Nimbus views the life sciences as a major vertical market, along with energy and transactional processing/financial services. Flash memory is “perfect for virtualization or I/O virtualization,” says Isakovich, as well as high-performance scientific workloads that involve a lot of analytics.
Could this be the beginning of the end of spinning media..?