Violin Memory moves into server-side flash with low-cost PCIe cards

Startup Violin Memory expands from all-flash storage arrays into PCIe flash for servers; turns to investor Toshiba to supply its NAND.

Solid-state array startup Violin Memory is jumping into the PCI Express flash market with the help of partner and investor Toshiba. Violin today launched a series of server-based flash products it claims will beat competitors on price.

Toshiba, a Violin investor since 2010, is supplying the NAND for Violin's new cards and is expected to sell the PCI Express (PCIe) cards. Toshiba also supplies the flash for Violin's all-flash storage arrays.

Violin is bringing out four Velocity PCIe cards. The 1.37 TB capacity low-profile card has a 4K mix read-write performance of 120,000 IOPS with a street price of $3 per gigabyte (GB).

The other three Velocity cards have street prices of $6 per GB. A 2.75 TB card supports 180,000 IOPS; a 5.5 TB cards handles 270,000 IOPS; and an 11 TB card handles 540,000 IOPS according to Violin. The 2.75 TB and 5.5 TB cards are full height, half-length, and the 11 TB card is full-length, single wide.

The Velocity cards use multi-level cell (MLC) flash.

Narayan Venkat, Violin's VP of product management, claims Violin has the lowest cost per gigabyte of any PCIe flash cards on the market. He said Violin also uses a lightweight driver that does not require host CPU and DRAM to aid performance.

Violin sells a 6000 series of networked-attached flash memory arrays and a 3000 series of direct-attached flash memory systems. Venkat said Violin sees lucrative markets for flash, based both in the array and server.

"We've been in the market three or four years with memory-based arrays," he said. "But we anticipate customers want to use PCIe flash on the server side, too."

Violin's not alone there. There is a crowded field of PCIe flash vendors, including Fusion-IO, Micron, LSI, Virident Systems, STEC, OCZ, SanDisk, IBM/Texas Memory Systems and Smart Modular. Several of the competitors also sell solid-state drives (SSDs) or other flash storage.

Storage vendors EMC and NetApp resell others' PCIe cards along with their caching software.

Venkat said Violin's PCIe roadmap calls for support of replication and data mirroring later this year that will enable customers to share data across servers. He said Violin will use technology it gained by acquiring application acceleration startup Gridiron Systems earlier this year in the Velocity cards.

SSD analyst Jim Handy of Objective Analysis said the Toshiba relationship will help Violin if there is a NAND shortage, which he expects to happen this year.

"The relationship guarantees that Violin will not suffer when flash supplies tighten," he said. "The other side of the coin is the distribution channel. Toshiba has a long-standing business selling solid-state drives and knows where to find business for such products."

Violin isn't clear on the distribution details yet. Venkat said he expects Toshiba to sell the Velocity cards with its products and perhaps use Violin intellectual property in its own brand of PCIe cards. But nothing is final yet.

Violin's press release includes a quote from Hiroyuki Sato, vice president of Toshiba's storage products division, saying that expanding the relationship with Violin "will allow us to bring the valuable Violin enterprise IP to a broad range of industry-leading solutions in our future product offerings."

Handy said there is an opportunity for Violin in server-side flash because the market will likely grow substantially. But from a technology standpoint, he said there is no advantage to selling flash in the array and server. "There's nothing magic about being the supplier for both solutions. They won't work any better together if they're both from a Violin or an EMC."

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