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DIMM-connected flash further blurs the line between storage and memory

Andrew Burton

Earlier this month, Smart Storage Systems released a server-side memory channel storage card using technology from Diablo Technologies Inc.

The vendor claimed its

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cards have much lower latency than PCI Express (PCIe) flash cards or SATA and SAS solid-state drive connections.

Smart's ULLtraDIMM flash storage boards connect directly to server memory channel lanes via dual in-line memory module (DIMM) slots. The company said this requires no changes to the motherboard or DIMM slots.

"[The cards] can scale flash capacity on the memory channel to 6.4 TB," said Marc Staimer, founder and senior analyst of Beaverton, Ore.-based Dragon Slayer Consulting. "It's not quite as good [a] performance as DRAM, but it's less expensive and that's a lot of potential capacity." He went on to say that he thinks many server vendors will OEM the cards.

Smart has positioned ULLtraDIMM as a potential tier between PCIe flash and DRAM. But do users need another server-side flash tier? 

"I think as long as a new tool offers a sufficiently differentiated and viable price/performance from existing tools then it will find its place," said Mark Peters, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. "The range of capacity/performance/price needs in the market is very broad and something of a chicken-and-egg situation where demand often exists once an appropriate tool permits better performance for specific workloads."

Dennis Martin, president and founder of Arvada, Colo.-based Demartek, said connecting flash to the memory channel is not so much about creating another server-side tier. "It's really about significantly reducing latency to get storage accesses at the same or nearly the same access speed as main memory," he said. "It's about the long-term difference between storage and memory and where we would really like to store things."

Staimer agreed and said "memory-constrained operations are going to love this, and the HPC [high-performance computing] market will be the main consumers."

Lower latency than PCIe-connected flash at a lower price than DRAM will no doubt be appealing to users. However, some organizations may hold out for what's coming down the line -- especially if their servers' DIMM slots are already plugged up with DRAM.

Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Stillwater, Minn.-based Server and StorageIO, said the cards are interesting, but he sees them as a sort of stopgap. "This approach may be too little too late for what eventually will occur: native and open NAND flash support via motherboards along with other memory-side enhancements. Micron and others have indicated -- if not made statements -- that this is the direction they [are] taking."


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