EMC to flesh out VFCache with VMware integration, other additions

The server-based flash cache will come in bigger cards, SSDs and less expensive media later this year, the company says

EMC has big plans this year for the VFCache flash storage it introduced on Monday, with the coming enhancements including SSDs, 1TB cards, integration with VMware and less expensive MLC flash media.

VFCache went on sale Monday as a PCIe card for cached data in servers, which will use EMC's FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) software. In the second quarter, the company will start customer tests of an external VFCache appliance that can be shared among servers. But by the end of the year, VFCache also will become available in the form of SSDs (solid-state drives) and with MLC (multilevel cell) technology.

"This is [version] one of VFCache," said Pat Gelsinger, president and chief operating officer of EMC Information Infrastructure Products, at a launch event in San Francisco on Monday.

As it enters a technology field pioneered by startup Fusion-IO starting in 2007, EMC hopes to take high-speed, server-based flash beyond specialized Internet companies such as Facebook and into mainstream enterprises. It aims to do for enterprise flash what Apple did for consumer flash when it popularized that storage medium in iPods, iPhones and iPads, Gelsinger said. Last year, EMC said it shipped 24 petabytes of flash data capacity in its storage arrays.

VFCache is designed to work in conjunction with EMC's large installed base of networked storage arrays, caching the most critically needed data on the server while storing that and other information permanently across a network.

Later this year, EMC plans to expand and update its lineup of VFCache products in several dimensions. To begin with, it plans to ship 1TB server flash cards, up from the 300GB products that launched the line, Gelsinger said.

The company also plans to extend the software used for VFCache to SSDs, which fit in conventional hard-drive slots. Though these won't deliver the same performance boost as the PCIe-based cards, EMC will offer them to enterprises that have extra hard-drive slots in existing servers, Gelsinger said in an interview at the event.

At launch, VFCache is available only with SLC (single-level cell) flash chips. But within the year, EMC plans to offer MLC silicon, which is less inherently durable than SLC but costs less per gigabyte. When the MLC products ship, EMC will be able to warranty them for the same life as SLC flash components. The chips will be enterprise-class MLC, which is more long-lasting than the consumer form used in smartphones and tablets, Gelsinger said. EMC controller software will also play a role in making the media last, he said.

Also this year, EMC plans to make VFCache work with virtualization software from VMware, which is majority owned by EMC. It aims to solve a potential problem that server-based flash cache creates for virtualized data centers, Gelsinger said: Virtualization allows a virtual machine to be moved from one physical server to another for efficiency, but an on-server cache doesn't automatically travel with the VM. In addition, VMware tends to treat data from any source as if it comes from a typical SAN (storage-area network), with that level of access speed, and can't take advantage of the faster access available on VFCache.

"That's a problem and an opportunity, and those would be some of the types of things that we would work on with VMware, or Microsoft, or the Linux community as well," Gelsinger said in the interview.

EMC also plans to add data deduplication and tighter integration with its storage arrays through FAST over the next year.

Flash can dramatically boost application performance, especially when accessed via a fast PCIe bus, but won't kill the spinning hard disk, Gelsinger said. Standard, high-volume disks are 30 to 50 times less expensive per bit than enterprise flash storage, he said. But flash may take the place of the fastest, most expensive disks, which are used for speed instead of capacity.

"High-performance drives could be dead in the future, because performance will move to flash, but volume drives will be the mainstay of high-volume storage for decades to come," Gelsinger said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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