IBM bets $1 billion on Flash storage

IBM has introduced a new line of solid-state storage systems, FlashSystem, using technology from its Texas Memory acquisition

The hard drive will soon be dead, at least for most uses in the enterprise, IBM is betting. The company is undertaking a major strategic initiative -- and US$1 billion in research -- to make flash the prominent form of storage in most organizations.

IBM has launched a line of Flash-based storage systems, called FlashSystem, based on technologies IBM acquired when it purchased Texas Memory last year. The company will also open 12 centers around the globe that will help customers prototype flash systems as well as answer their questions about the technology.

A set of FlashSystems could be configured into a single rack capable of storing as much as 1 petabyte of data, capable of producing 22 million IOPS (input/output operations per second). Getting that same level of storage and throughput from a hard drive system would require 315 racks of high performance disks, Mills explained. Thanks to technology developed by Texas Memory, the eMLC (enterprise multilevel chip) flash chips that these systems use have an average lifetime of 30,000 write/erase cycles, far more than the 1,000 to 3,000 cycles that consumer grade MLCs offer.

FlashSystem joins IBM's other flash and flash and disk hybrid storage systems, including the IBM Storwize V7000, IBM System Storage DS8870 and the IBM XIV Storage System.

With flash systems "You get a lot of storage in a relative small form factor, with very high performance level," said Steve Mills, IBM senior vice president for software and systems, speaking at a New York press conference Thursday.

At the presentation, Mills made the case that it would actually be more cost effective now for organizations to use all solid-state storage rather than hard drives, when all the data-center costs are tallied.

"There is no question flash is the most economical solution to the business problem when the business problem calls for that class of technology," he said.

IBM estimates that enterprises spend about $20 billion each year buying and maintaining storage systems. "This market is as big as it is because it is an inefficient market. This will profoundly change. Inefficient markets never last forever," Mills said.

Not all systems would benefit from the use of solid-state technologies -- only those where performance is a critical factor to operations, Mills stipulated. But performance is a factor across an increasing number of workloads, including transactional processing, analysis and general cloud computing, Mills said.

Increasingly, disk drives are becoming the bottleneck in many latency sensitive systems today, Mills explained. In the past 10 years, great strides have been made in improving the performance of processors, networking and memory, though hard drives have gotten only slightly faster. "It is a mechanical device," Mills said.

Traditionally, enterprise storage systems have relied on hard drives to store data. Because their data is written to a circular platter using an actuator arm that moves back and forth across the disk, hard drives take longer to write and read data than solid-state devices, which can write and read to any location equally as quickly.

To boost hard-drive performance, some organizations stripe, or span, data across multiple disks in order to improve performance, leaving most of each disk empty. This approach speeds system responsiveness because a drive's actuator arm doesn't have to travel across the entire disk to write or read data. But this approach drives up the costs because it requires more hard drives, as well as the associated cost of electricity, space and IT management to keep the disks running.

Solid-state disks have been available for more than a decade, though they have cost more than hard drives and still can't offer the full capacity of hard drives, on a per-disk basis. The prices have been declining, though, as more are used in consumer devices such as smartphones and cameras.

And Mills made the argument that the industry is seeing a tipping point, where flash disks can be just as inexpensive as hard drives.

Right now, generic hard drives cost about $2 per gigabyte, he said. An enterprise hard drive will cost about $4 per gigabyte, and a high-performance hard drive will run about $6 per gigabyte. If an organization stripes its data across more disks for better performance, the cost goes up to about $10 per gigabyte. In some cases, where performance is critical, hard-drive costs can skyrocket to $30 or $50 per gigabyte. A solid state disk from IBM runs about $10 per gigabyte and can be filled to capacity, so they actually are less expensive in many cases, Mills argued.

Also, other economical benefits accrues with using solid-state drives. One is that they consume less electricity. While today most IT managers do not have to worry about how much electricity their systems consume, this may be changing. One IBM customer who spoke at the presentation, Sprint Director of IT Operations Karim Abdullah, noted that his company has mandated that he cut electricity use of his operations by 1.5 percent month over month. Abdullah is using solid-state disks to cut power costs and improve system performance.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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