Startup Skyera says it can beat hard-disk storage prices with flash array

The Skyhawk platform will hold 44TB of flash and include an Ethernet switch

Skyera, a Silicon Valley startup, says it can make high-speed flash storage for enterprises cheaper than hard disks by using the low-grade chip technology found in thumb drives.

Skyera has built a 44TB storage array, called the Skyhawk, using MLC (multilevel cell) flash media made with a dense manufacturing process of 19nm to 20nm. That type of flash is less expensive than the media used in most solid-state enterprise storage systems, but it's not built to be reliable for five years, the standard for enterprise equipment. Skyera says it can achieve that longevity through proprietary controller and RAID technology.

The result is a storage array that can fit into a standard iSCSI environment but costs less than US$3 per gigabyte, or less than $1 per gigabyte when Skyera's data compression and deduplication are applied, according to the company. It compares that price with a typical cost of about $1.80 per gigabyte for a typical enterprise hard-disk array. The multiple proprietary elements of the product don't affect how it works with other vendors' equipment, because the Skyhawk has an integrated Ethernet switch, said Tony Barbagallo, vice president of marketing.

If Skyera can fulfill those promises, it could help to drive growth that IDC estimates will make enterprise flash shipments in 2016 more than 20 times what they will be this year.

"Getting those price points down is very, very important for the market to continue to grow," IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz said. Enterprises like the speed of flash but cost is still a barrier, he said. The declining cost of flash media itself, plus the use of compression and deduplication to effectively fit more data in a given capacity, have combined to whittle away prices, he said. One caveat to the efficiency gains promised by deduplication is that not all types of data or applications can take equal advantage of this technique, Janukowicz said.

Enterprises use storage more intensively than consumers do, rewriting the data on a chip much more frequently. That tends to cause errors and failures, so flash for business has to be more solidly built or use other techniques to keep the media reliable. In addition, CIOs investing in storage equipment for data centers expect it to last at least five years.

Enterprise products originally used only SLC (single-level cell) flash, the most long-lasting and expensive kind. Now they sometimes use so-called enterprise MLC flash, which is cheaper than SLC but still less dense and more expensive than what Skyera plans to use. Cheap consumer flash only lasts for 1,000 to 3,000 write operations by itself, so Skyera created its own controllers and its own RAID system to extend its life to the 100,000-300,000 writes that enterprises expect.

In addition to building its own controller, Skyera developed its own RAID technology to be able to rebuild the stored data if any bits are lost. It can perform the equivalent of a typical RAID 6 system with only one-third as many writes, further reducing the amount of wear on the flash, Barbagallo said. For high performance, Skyera also performs compression and deduplication in hardware, Barbagallo said.

The built-in Ethernet switch has 40 Gigabit Ethernet ports and three 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports, so enterprises can connect it directly to servers or to a data center network. Inside the unit, the switch communicates with the flash components via a proprietary interface that can carry data fast enough to feed the Ethernet ports, Barbagallo said.

The Skyhawk is built in a 1U form factor, filling one standard unit of data-center rack space. It can store 44TB of data without compression or deduplication, for a price of $131,000, Barbagallo said. Compression and deduplication will cost about 20 percent more, he said.

Skyera is based in San Jose, California, and has about 50 employees, including key players who came from flash controller pioneer SandForce. It will show off the Skyhawk platform at the Flash Memory Summit next week in Santa Clara, California, and expects to finish early-access testing and make the product generally available early next year.

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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