Flash can eliminate imbalance between server and storage performance

Sun storage chief claims there has been minimal storage innovation in the last decade

The rise of flash memory in the enterprise data center will help eliminate a fundamental imbalance between the performance of servers and storage, Sun storage chief John Fowler told attendees at Storage Networking World.

There has been minimal storage innovation over the past decade, Fowler said. Hard drive capacity is going up and the cost per gigabyte is going down, but speed has remained relatively flat, at least compared with the frequent doubling in speed of processors predicted by Moore's Law, he said.

As a result, servers are much faster than the storage systems they rely upon, he said.

"The server processor is more than two complete orders of magnitude of performance faster than storage devices," Fowler said.

Enterprises are pursuing numerous costly strategies to speed up access to data, including short stroking and overprovisioning hard drives. But flash memory, despite costing more on a per-gigabyte basis, can provide a more cost-effective and energy-efficient solution for delivering performance to applications, Fowler noted.

One small flash device can deliver the same performance as 300 hard disk drives, when measured by input/output operations per second, he said.

Flash shouldn't replace hard disk drives completely, Fowler said. Instead, flash will become another tier in the enterprise storage arsenal, along with hard disks and DRAM, he said. Hard drives would still be used for applications that don't require extraordinarily low latency.

"We don't see flash replacing hard drives any time in the near future in a direct sense, because hard drives will continue to have a tremendous advantage in terms of cost per gigabyte and in density," he said. "What you want to do is take advantage of flash in the memory hierarchy to deliver the exceptional levels of performance [to applications that need it]."

Sun, which is being purchased by Oracle, earlier this week introduced a flash array that includes up to 2TB of solid-state disk, and delivers well over 1 million IOPS in a single rack but consumes just 300 watts. The Sun F5100 Flash Array can increase the speed of Oracle and MySQL database applications by up to a factor of 10, the company says.

Customers are still expressing concerns about flash reliability, Fowler acknowledged. But enterprise flash drives are more robust than the consumer products, which have a more limited number of reads and writes. Flash drives won't last forever, but mechanical hard drives spinning at 10,000 revolutions per minute also introduce reliability risks, he noted.

Customer concerns are starting to "go away now as people get used to [flash]," Fowler said.

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Jon Brodkin

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