Sun to embed flash storage in nearly all its servers

Sun predicting big things for flash

Sun will release a 32GB flash storage drive this year and make flash storage an option for nearly every server the vendor produces, Sun officials are announcing Wednesday.

Like EMC, Sun is predicting big things for flash. While flash storage is far more expensive than disk on a per-gigabyte basis, Sun argues that flash is cheaper for high-performance applications that rely on fast IOPS (I/O Operations Per Second) speeds.

"It consumes one-fifth the power and is a hundred times faster [than rotating disk drives]," John Fowler, the head of Sun's servers and storage division, said at a press conference in Boston Tuesday. "The fact that it's not the same dollars per gigabyte is perfectly okay."

Sun held back some details on the products. It's not clear when in 2008 they will be released, and while Fowler passed around an engineering prototype of the 32GB drive he would not say which chip manufacturer Sun is working with to build it. EMC relies on chip maker STEC for its flash drives. Fowler did say that one of Sun's partners is Intel, which announced a solid state flash drive last year.

Customers will be able to get flash storage embedded in nearly any server they buy from Sun by the end of the calendar year, Fowler says. "That's the easiest place to put it, because you have a high-performance I/O subsystem that's very close," he says.

Even the most optimistic industry players say flash isn't about to replace most disk storage. Fowler said a server containing small amounts of flash might be connected to large disk arrays. Essentially, the data needed most quickly would reside in flash.

"You could have one of our servers with a collection of solid state drives in it connected to traditional arrays," he says. Sun's ZFS file system lets customers aggregate multiple types of storage devices into one centrally managed pool. "ZFS allows you to manage this as a hybrid storage pool where the local [flash drives] in the front of the server are used for these logs and caching and the big [disk] arrays are used for these petabytes of storage."

The majority of enterprises building I/O-intensive applications will use some amount of flash within a year, Fowler predicted. Databases like Oracle, MySQL and IBM DB2 are ideal candidates, he says.

Sun's planned 32GB drive is smaller than the ones already available from EMC, which makes them in the 73- and 146-gigabyte variety. Fowler said Sun will try to lure customers with low prices, about US$1,000 for a 32-gig drive.

Fowler argues that flash is more cost-effective than disk in some cases because of its high IOPS rate. According to Sun, a 146GB disk drive with 15,000 RPM gets about 180 write IOPS and 320 read IOPS, while a 32GB flash drive gets 5,000 or more write IOPS and at least 30,000 read IOPS. Disk drives end up costing $2.43 per IOPS and solid state drives using flash cost eight cents per IOPS, according to Sun.

A higher IOPS rate can reduce the amount of gigabytes needed to run intensive applications, because storage space is often wasted.

"If you're building a large database application you need a lot of IOPS," Fowler says. "What you end up doing is buying a lot of disks because each one gives you another 300 IOPS. But you're not necessarily filling the disks."

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Jon Brodkin

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