By Kevin Davies
August 30, 2012 | Nimbus Data Systems doesn’t yet boast a life sciences customer on a par with its marquee clients eBay and Lockheed Martin, but chances are good that the rapidly growing performance and affordability of flash storage -- as featured in Nimbus’ new Gemini system -- will soon be winning over customers.
“In a nutshell, we can impact time to market,” Nimbus CEO and founder Tom Isakovich told Bio-IT World. “The performance of storage is really important – our technology multiplies performance dramatically over spindles [disk storage]… Flash memory can be game changing.”
Flash should be particularly attractive for organizations that have to manage enormous amounts of data. “Our technology allows an 8:1 reduction in data center footprint and rack space, as well as power consumption,” says Isakovich, who is competing with a slew of Silicon Valley companies offering flash products, including Violin Memory, Pure Storage, TMS (recently acquired by IBM), and SolidFire.
With 230 customers and counting, Isakovich calls Nimbus the “greybeard of the flash market” and a “proven player.” He continues: “If we can convince customers this is the right philosophy, then we’re happy to have a competitive shoot out.”
The major challenge around flash has been its acquisition cost – it’s simply been too expensive for most high-capacity storage needs. “Organizations have resorted to spindles, and even though it hasn’t delivered the performance, they keep up by buying a lot and building sprawling data centers,” says Isakovich. But flash production is increasing so fast thanks to the consumer market that it’s making data center flash much more viable.
“The perception that flash is expensive will take time to erode,” Isakovich concedes, but “It’s not as dramatic a price premium as it used to be.”
Two years ago, Isakovich says, the cost of flash was about $10/Gigabyte. Today, Nimbus flash memory is priced at around $8/GB, whereas 15,000-rpm disk is in the $5-6/GB range. Isakovich says cost is “the final domino to fall” and believes the changeover can occur “pretty quickly.”
Gemini can accommodate up to 1 Petabyte of flash in a 42U rack, which Nimbus claims is a 15X improvement on disk.
Another widespread concern centers on the endurance of flash memory. “Hard drives fail, but don’t have an endurance issue,” says Isakovich. “Flash will have endurance concerns, but we’re alleviating these concerns.”
Unlike hard drives, flash has finite endurance before it wears out. The new Nimbus Gemini product features a 10-year performance guarantee and warranty, which may be unique to the sector. This is made possible by the deployment of proprietary wear-leveling algorithms, which evenly distribute the workload and prevent hotspots occurring.
The Nimbus flash platform is a shared external flash memory, designed to be networked, rather than the flash installation in the Gordon supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, which uses internal SSDs inside the servers.
Major IT vendors such as EMC and NetApp are incorporating SSDs inside traditional disk arrays. But that’s like trying to repurpose a gas car to become an electric car, says Isakovich, and doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The new Gemini Flash Memory Array provides complete redundancy for nonstop availability, a 5x increase in density over its predecessor, and new unified system controllers. It supports all industry standard storage protocols, including NFS, iSCSI, CIFS, FC and Infiniband.
The controller has been designed from the ground up, and includes compute and network conductivity in a single board. “We can change personality to adapt to one of three network types,” says Isakovich. He adds that Nimbus has elevated performance to “record-setting” heights: a simple 2U system boasts over 1 million IOPs, 12 GB/sec -- equivalent to 250 spindles. (The prior product reached 8 GB/sec.)
Isakovich listed several other features of the new Gemini technology. The system features dual controllers (hence the name), which can handle I/O simultaneously and thus double performance. High Availability is critical, he says: Gemini is rated more than 99.999%.
Gemini also provides multiprotocol connectivity, providing the ability to change the kind of network being supported without changing hardware. “This gives investment preservation,” says Isakovich. For example, some enterprises might favor fiber channel before switching to Ethernet.
The Gemini features parallel memory architecture with a non-blocking architecture. Performance improvements stem from 24 drives in the system. Each of the drives full line rate into processors A and B, leveraging high bandwidth PCI express.
Isakovich say that as fast as flash is, it’s faster on reads than writes. The strategy Nimbus has pursued is to blend flash with DRAM to achieve added performance. Each of the 24 flash drives includes a little DRAM, which functions as a cache. This enables write operations to be committed to DRAM while reads go directly to flash, providing more balanced performance.
The new drive technology offers an improved density and ease of serviceability. “We can get 48 TB flash in a 2U system,” says Isakovich. He adds that customers can replace the drives very easily.
Isakovich believes that the improved performance of flash will help life science organizations accelerate research and drug development. “The CapX costs are a drop in the bucket compared to the potential profit windfall,” he says.
As for further signs of consolidation in the flash memory market, Isakovich deftly avoids distractions. “We’ve been profitable for over two years and grown revenue 500%,” he says. “I see nothing but bright skies ahead!”