The solid state of storage

Walter Reed had a problem with speed.

As the director of operations for StockMaster.com, a provider of online investment information and services, Reed discovered that one of his company's new applications, which took a satellite feed of all the securities files and split them into about 35,000 different files, was getting seriously backed-up.

"We relay the information and file it minute-by-minute for two days," explained Reed. "After 10 days, we file it by every 10 minutes."

According to Reed, the volume of their application was causing severe delays and hindering StockMaster.com's real-time performance.

"We have a [Network Appliance, Inc.] NetApp Filer and we tried writing to that and even with its cache it couldn't handle the volume," said Reed. "We tried a local disk and we were finding out through using I/O Status on our Solaris system that the local disk was getting behind by four hours per day. It was the disk itself that was the problem," he said.

Reed needed a fix.

"Since we're a Solaris shop, I read up on performance tuning on the Sun Web site. Their advice was to get a huge RAID array and spread the [file] load out over it," he said. "That meant dedicating a 200 gigabyte array to a 500 megabyte application and that just didn't make sense to do."

"I had seen some of the early solid state drives about six or seven years ago in trade journals and then just did a Web search for 'solid state drive' and found Quantum and Solid Data," explained Reed.

Solid state storage provides the capability to read/write data without any moving parts and is based on random access memory (RAM) rather than magnetic media. Solid state storage contains an embedded SCSI or Fibre Channel controller that interfaces to the server operating system. It stores data in random access memory (DRAM) during write operations and retrieves it during read operations.

Reed eventually purchased Solid Data System's Excellerator 600 Ultra solid state storage system.

"The application for these [solid state devices] are probably fairly slim, but it was perfect for us," said Reed. Reed described the installation process. "It only took about 10 minutes to install, and only required a single reboot. Ten minutes after install, we ran some quick performance tests and the results were better than we expected by a factor of about 10," he said.

Online businesses live and die by their Web page access, high-speed transactions and rapid response times. In the competitive world of e-business, getting information to customers is vital. Companies have been crippled by systems that are too slow or fail frequently.

A growing number of businesses have been turning to solid state storage to meet their storage needs. Analysts say that it is becoming increasingly cost-effective to use solid state storage.

"Between 1995 and 1998, DRAM prices fell over 90 percent," said Farid Neema, president of Peripheral Concepts, a storage industry analyst firm based in Santa Barbara, CA. "This price reduction made it possible for the mid-range Unix and NT server markets to incorporate solid state disk as a means of augmenting existing JBOD and RAID systems when those systems are not able to deliver the performance that their applications demand."

Major players in the solid state storage arena include Quantum Corp., Milpitas, Calif., Imperial Technology, Inc., El Segundo, Calif., and Solid Data Systems, Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.

Greg Brashier, vice president of Industry Development for Strategic Research Corporation, a market research firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif., said solid state data storage puts what users need where they need it.

"With individual servers, it's almost impossible for a server to have enough cache and get enough 'cache hits' to have all of the data where they want it to be," said Brashier. "The basic idea of solid state storage is that it's RAM instead of disk, but not like disk in a computer. The idea is that it's RAM speed rather than waiting for access," he said.

Quantum Corp.'s vice president and manager of solid state business unit, Charlie Cassidy, said he feels some people have the wrong idea about the file management that is involved with using solid state storage. "One of the misconceptions is people feel that the mix of hot files changes rapidly over time. The fact is that it doesn't," Cassidy said.

Brashier warns, however, that while solid state is an invaluable addition to a storage environment, the efficiency can only be maximized when it's configured correctly. "Think ahead of time as to what belongs in the solid state disk," he said.

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