Sun aims for SSD future in servers

Sun has laid out more of its plans for using solid-state drives in its servers, which could help improve overall system performance.

Sun has laid out more of its plans for using solid-state drives in its servers, which it says will help customers to reduce energy costs and improve application performance in the data center.

The company is offering SSDs that customers can slide into their storage bays, and in the future will plans to integrate them onto the server motherboard itself to provide faster data access for I/O intensive applications, said Michael Cornwell, lead technologist of flash memory at Sun. This could mark a change in how Sun servers are designed going forward, he said.

The company announced Wednesday that it is now offering Intel's 32GB X25-E Extreme SSD which customers can slide into their servers. Priced starting at US$1,199, the drive will be available in a 2.5-inch module that fits into 14 models of Sun Fire servers and Sun Storage 7000 systems.

Longer term the company hopes to locate SSDs closer to the server CPUs to speed up tasks like processing Web 2.0 and database applications, Cornwell said. Bringing SSDs into the server will cut the bottleneck that occurs when today's powerful, multicore CPUs have to wait for data to be delivered from hard drives, Cornwell said.

Solid-state drives, or SSDs, store data on flash memory chips and are emerging as an alternative to hard drives, which store data on spinning magnetic platters. SSDs offer faster read-and-write capabilities, but are still generally more expensive to purchase. Sun said last year that it would offer SSDs in most of its servers by the middle of 2009.

Ideally, data centers will use a hybrid of SSDs attached to servers and hard drives in centralized storage systems, Cornwell said. Hard drives provide better long-term storage for large volumes of data, but SSDs can be located between the central storage system and the CPU to provide quick access to data that is currently being processed.

He talked about the possibility of selling servers in the future that have no hard drive and rely entirely on SSDs, though he didn't offer details of that Wednesday. Sun also showed a 24GB SSD module made by Samsung based on its "open flash module" design, which the company hopes will provide the basis for other companies to build enterprise-grade SSDs.

Adding SSDs to servers could help cut down on hardware purchases, because SSDs can act as both storage and to supplement DRAM in servers, said Henry Baltazar, storage and systems analyst at The 451 Group. If a server reaches its memory limit, adding more SSD modules can reduce the need to buy a new server, he said.

Using more SSDs will also cut energy costs and take the guesswork out of system maintenance, Baltazar said. Provisioning additional storage can involve multiple steps, but plugging SSDs into servers can reduce the amount of work.

SSDs may be more expensive but companies can make a case for their purchase, because of the better performance they offer and lower energy usage, Baltazar said.

Sun's plans to put SSDs inside servers could change the status quo in server design if other vendors follow suit, said Clay Ryder, president of The Sageza Group. Other server vendors already offer SSD modules, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell, but mostly as an alternative to hard drives.

Wednesday's announcement gives Sun an early-mover advantage over its competitors, but the company sometimes falters in executing on such projects, Ryder said. The innovation may give it an advantage in the short term but it remains to be seen how long it will hold that lead, he said.

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