FlashForward to Beyond

The flash frenzy has reached its zenith in 2016. We now no longer are interested in listening to storage technology vendors touting the power of solid state storage (NAND Flash included) over spinning drives.

The capacity of 3D NAND Flash SSDs has reached a whopping 15.3TB (that is even bigger than the 12TB 7200RPM HDDs of today), and with deduplication and compression, the storage efficiency has reached a conservative 4:1 or 5:1. Effective capacity of most mid-end storage arrays can easily reach 1-2 Petabytes.

And flash and hybrid platforms have reached maturity in these few short years. So what is next?

The landscape has obviously changed. The performance landscape, the capacity landscape and all related to the storage data points have changed. And the speed of SSDs together with the up-and-coming NVMe and NVDIMM technology in new storage array controllers are also shifting the data bottlenecks to another part of the architecture. The development of I/O communications and interfaces has to change as well, to take advantage of the asynchronous I/Os in storage tiering and caching using NAND Flash.

With this mature and well understood landscape, it is time to take Flash to the next level. This next level comes in the form of an exciting end-user conference in Singapore on 25th April 2017. It is called FlashForward.

The 2016 FlashForward event in Europe has already garnered great support from the cream of the storage technologists around the world, and had fantastic feedbacks from the end-user attendees. That FlashForward event has also seen the birth of an international business and technology exchange in its inaugural introduction.  Yes, it is time to learn from the field experts, and it is time to build on the Flash Platform for new Data Services.

From the sponsorship package brochure I have received, it is definitely an event not to be missed.

The FlashForward Conference in Singapore is exquisitely procured by Evito Ltd, under the stewardship of Mr. Paul Talbut. Paul is a very seasoned veteran in the global circuit as an SNIA director of several initiatives. He has been immensely involved in the development of several SNIA chapters around the world, including South Asia, Malaysia, India, China, and even Brazil. He also leads by example with the SNIA Global Steering Committee (GSC); he is the SNIA Global Education Director and at one time, SNIA DPCO (Data Protection & Capacity Optimization) global proctor.

I have had the honour working with Paul for almost 8 years now, and I am sure he will lead the FlashForward Conference with valuable insights and experiences.

This is probably the greatest period for the industry and end users to get involved in the FlashForward Conference. For one, it is endorsed by SNIA, the vendor-neutral association which has been the growth beacon of the storage networking industry.

Secondly, it is the perfect opportunity for technology vendors to build their mindshare with end users and customers. And with the endorsement of the independent field experts and technology practitioners, end users would have a field day garnering approvals for their decisions, as well as learning the best practices to build upon the Flash technology they have implemented in their data center space.

The sponsorship packages are listed below, and I do encourage technology vendors, especially the All-Flash vendors to use the FlashForward conference as a platform to build their mindshare, and most of all, their branding. Continue reading

Violin pulling the strings

Violin Memory is in our shores as we speak. There are already confirmed news that an EMC veteran in Singapore has joined them and will be surfacing soon in the South Asia region.

Of all the all-Flash storage systems I have on my platter, Violin Memory seems to be the only one which is ready for IPO this year, after having taking in USD$75 million worth of funding in 2011. That was an impressive number considering the economic climate last year was not so great. But what is so great about Violin Memory that is attracting the big money? Both Juniper Networks and Toshiba America are early investors.

I am continuing my quest to look at all-Flash storage systems, after my blogs on Pure Storage, Kaminario and SolidFire. (Actually, I wanted to write about another all-Flash first because it keeps bugging me with its email .. but I feeling annoyed about that one right now). Violin Memory is here and now.

From a technology standpoint, there are a few key technologies, notably their vRAID and their Violin Switched Memory architecture (vXM), both patent pending. Let’s explore these 2 technologies.

At the core of Violin Memory is the vXM, a proprietary, patent-pending memory switching fabric, which Violin claims to be the first in the industry. The architecture uses high speed, fault tolerant memory controllers and FPGA (field programmable gate arrays) to switch between corresponding, fully redundant elements of VIMMs (Violin Inline Memory Modules). The high level vXM architecture is shown below:

 

VIMMs are the building blocks that are the culmination of memory modules, which can be from different memory types. The example below shows the culmination and aggregation of Toshiba MLC chips, which eventually bore the VIMMs and further consolidation into the full capacity Flash array.

The memory switching fabric of the vXM architecture enables very high speed in data switching and routing, and hence Violin can boast of having “spike-free latency“, something we in this industry desperately need.

Another cool technology that Violin has is their hardware-based vRAID. This is a RAID algorithm that is designed to work with Flash and other solid state storage devices. I am going through the Violin Memory white paper now and the technology is some crazy, complicated sh*t. This is presented in their website about the low latency, vRAID:

 

I don’t want to sound stupid writing about the vRAID now, and I probably need to digest the whitepaper several times in order to understand the technology better. And I will let you know once I have a fair idea of how this works.

More about Violin Memory later. Meanwhile, a little snag came up when a small Texas company, Narada Systems filed a suit of patent infringement against Violin on January 5, 2012. The suit mentioned that the vXM has violated the technology and intellectual property of patent #6,504,786 and #7,236,488 and hence claiming damages from Violin Memory. You can read about the legal suit here.

Whether this legal suit will affect Violin Memory is anybody’s guess but the prospects of Violin Memory going for IPO in just a few short years validates how the industry is looking at solid state storage solutions out there.

I have already mentioned a handful solid state storage players who are I called “all-Flash”, and from the Network Computing sites, blogger Howard Marks revealed 2 more stealth-mode, solid state start-ups in XtremIO and Proximal Data. This validates the industry’s confidence in solid state storage, and in 2012, we are going to see a goldrush in this technology.

The storage industry is dying for a revamp in the performance side, and living the bane of poor spinning disks performance for years, has made the market hungry for IOPS, low latency and throughput. Solid state storage is ripe and I hope this will trigger newer architectures in storage, especially RAID. Well done, Violin Memory!

 

Apple chomps Anobit

A few days ago, Apple paid USD$500 million to buy an Israeli startup, Anobit, a maker of flash storage technology.

Obviously, one of the reasons Apple did so is to move up a notch to differentiate itself from the competition and positions itself as a premier technology innovator. It has won the MP3 war with its iPod, but in the smartphones, tablets and notebooks space, Apple is being challenged strongly.

Today, flash storage technology is prevalent, and the demand to pack more capacity into a small real-estate of flash will eventually lead to reliability issues. The most common type of NAND flash storage is the MLC (multi-level cells) versus the more expensive type called SLC (single level cells).

But physically and the internal-build of MLC and SLC are the exactly the same, except that in SLC, one cell contains 1 bit of data. Obviously this means that 2 or more bits occupy one cell in MLC. That’s the only difference from a physical structure of NAND flash. However, if you can see from the diagram below, SLCs has advantages over MLCs.

 

NAND Flash uses electrical voltage to program a cell and it is always a challenge to store bits of data in a very, very small cell. If you apply too little voltage, the bit in the cell does not register and will result in something unreadable or an error. If you apply too much voltage, the adjacent cells are disturbed and resulting in errors in the flash. Voltage leak is not uncommon.

The demands of packing more and more data (i.e. more bits) into one cell geometry results in greater unreliability. Though the reliability of  the NAND Flash storage is predictable, i.e. we would roughly know when it will fail, we will eventually reach a point where the reliability of MLCs will no longer be desirable if we continue the trend of packing more and more capacity.

That’s when Anobit comes in. Anobit has designed and implemented architectural changes of the way NAND Flash storage is used. The technology in laymen terms comes in 2 stages.

  1. Error reduction – by understanding what causes flash impairment. This could be cross-coupling, read disturbs, data retention impairments, program disturbs, endurance impairments
  2. Error Correction and Signal Processing – Advanced ECC (error-correcting code), and introducing the patented (and other patents pending) Memory Signal Processing (TM) to improve the reliability and performance of the NAND Flash storage as show in the diagram below:

In a nutshell, Anobit’s new and innovative approach will result in

  • More reliable MLCs
  • Better performing MLCs
  • Cheaper NAND Flash technology

This will indeed extend the NAND Flash technology into greater innovation of flash storage technology in the near future. Whatever Apple will do with Anobit’s technology is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain. It’s going to propel Apple into newer heights.