Today SMART Storage Systems and Diablo Technologies are announcing a new partnership to the world. This partnership has actually been working feverishly in the background for a year and a half developing a radical new storage technology. Details of the new technology are scarce and reading the press release generates more questions than answers.
Luckily, we were able to catch up with Smart Storage Systems president John Scaramuzzo and Diablo founder and CEO Richard Badalone for an in-depth interview to shed more light on this new approach.
The high-level takeaway from the announcement is the upcoming release of a new class of storage from this new partnership, vaguely described as Ultra Low Latency (ULL) SSDs. The coming products are the fusion of SMART's Guardian Technology and Diablo's Memory Channel Storage (MCS) technologies. This new class of storage will radically transform enterprise server, virtualization, and cloud environments by taking a new approach to connecting NAND flash to the server.
The SAS and SATA connections commonly used by todays SSDs were initially designed and optimized for HDDs. These connections have presented themselves as a hindrance to the speed and superb latency provided by NAND-based solutions. The first attempt at sidestepping the constraints of SAS/SATA involved the migration to devices that connect directly to the PCIe bus. This approach has produced tremendous improvements in performance, leading PCIe SSDs to gain favor in many enterprise deployments.
PCIe SSDs are a great evolutionary step, but they still suffer from several drawbacks. There still isn't a standardized interface, and though NVMe and SCSI Express are lining up as contenders there is a significant period of time before these competing efforts come to fruition. In many cases, this lack of standardization leads to less-efficient techniques for communication across the PCIe bus among the current crops of PCIe SSDs.
Another key disadvantage is the problem of PCIe bus contention. There are typically several other devices connected to the bus, and these devices must fight for their share of system resources. The hub, which acts as a traffic cop between the PCIe bus and the CPU, adds latency to the raw performance of the device and adversely affects performance consistency. While PCIe is a huge step forward, it is still holding back the true capabilities of NAND based devices.
To truly redefine storage the final frontier lies in the memory connection. Memory channels provide a direct shot to the CPU, with virtually no hardware in the way to interfere with the data traverse. Each memory channel is tied to its own core, effectively eliminating device contention from the picture. This also allows for a uniquely scalable architecture. From the development perspective, having a CPU core for each channel brings about exciting opportunities.
This new ULL SSD enables DRAM-like performance and enterprise-class flash endurance and reliability, while leveraging cost-effective multi-level cell (MLC) NAND Flash. The exciting possibility of utilizing the DRAM connection brings the opportunity of lowering the overall latency from 'tens' of seconds to 'ones' of seconds. The accompanying increase in performance consistency will allow QoS purity unlike any conventional storage product available today. With tremendous advantages in latency and consistency on tap, the only remaining question is how to negotiate the data interface to the host.
One of the critical responsibilities of any storage manufacturer is to provide a solution that does not significantly disrupt the server environment. The ULL SSDs will function with the addition of a driver to the host system, and all NAND management routines are handled by the ULL. This minimizes host overhead, resulting in maximum utilization of server resources.
There are competing solutions on the market that differ significantly from this new approach. Many current devices communicate via SATA over the memory channel, negating much of the possible increase in performance. These devices also typically feature NAND and DRAM on the same package. This relegates the NAND to the role of merely providing a means of creating non-volatile storage for data held in DRAM.
The ULL approach features MLC NAND and presents this storage to the host in an easily accessible fashion. The data on the ULL can be addresses as either storage or memory. This allows storage architects to tailor their applications to take advantage of the storage in whichever fashion suits their needs best. The prospect of having hundreds of Gigabytes, and even Terabytes of data, accessible as either memory or storage is exciting.
This type of design immediately brings caching and tiering models to mind, and though SMART and Diablo are not currently providing software for these types of applications, they are focused on providing a platform which will function easily with existing third party software. This approach will not require any new hardware and works with existing and future server platforms.
SMART brings extensive Tier-One OEM experience to the table that will certainly help with qualification cycles. Diablo has been working on memory channel architectures for years. Amazingly, this rather secret partnership has already produced a level of maturity that has the companies jointly working at the customer level for integration into existing architectures. The combination of MCS and the Guardian Technology Platform will provide systems with dramatic improvements in latency, transaction throughput, IO bandwidth, density, scalability and operating cost over a wide range of enterprise-level deployments when compared to Flash-based designs using PCIe or SAS/SATA-based SSDs.
Unfortunately, the partnership announcement does not come with the typical speeds and feeds of the new devices. There will be a product announcement by the end of the calendar year, and until then we are left with general expectations of 50 percent higher transaction rates with 80 percent lower latency in database caching and OLTP applications. For virtualized environments, the MCS-Guardian system solution is expected to enable 10X more virtual machines per server while reducing DRAM requirements by over 70 percent.
These types of performance promises bode well for these new products. SMART Storage Systems and Diabo Technologies have the foundation laid to create a fusion of storage and memory unlike any other product, and at an affordable price point provided by MLC flash. The only other step that could provide a clearer shot to the CPU would be NAND actually embedded into the CPU itself. This certainly is not in the near future, and it is clear that SMART and Diablo are leading the way into the final frontier of storage technology.