IBM FlashSystem delivers homegrown all-flash array

IBM FlashSystem builds on all-flash technology acquired from Texas Memory Systems; FlashSystem 840 offers storage management features, eMLC flash.

IBM today released the FlashSystem 840, an all-flash array built with technology acquired from Texas Memory Systems Inc. and enhanced with IBM storage management features and performance enhancements.

IBM's second-generation all-flash storage array uses the vendor's MicroLatency technology to double the performance of its predecessor and is targeted for analytical databases, virtualization environments, and public and private clouds.

The IBM FlashSystem 840 was part of an announcement that included dual in-memory module-based flash for its System x and PureSystems servers, and comes nine months after IBM pledged to spend $1 billion over three years to develop flash technologies.

FlashSystem 840, which uses flash chips packaged in a high-density form factor, eventually will replace IBM's FlashSystem 820 and 810 that use enterprise multilevel cell (eMLC) flash and the 710 and 720 devices that use the more expensive single-level cell flash (SLC). Those systems were launched by IBM in April 2013, and were rebranded versions of Texas Memory Systems' high-performance RamSan family.

FlashSystem 840 scales to 48 TB of usable eMLC flash capacity in a 2U form factor. IBM claims the MicroLatency technology increases performance by reducing latency from milliseconds to microseconds to handle high-transaction applications. Kevin Powell, business line manager for IBM's flash portfolio, said the 840 can perform 135 microsecond reads and 90 microsecond writes.

"This is the first IBM-built all-flash array that is enhanced with reliability features such as hot-swappable flash modules, controllers and battery fans so it can be in full-production environments," he said. "We doubled the performance and bandwidth, and it has a 50% decrease in dollars per IOPS."

The IBM FlashSystem 840 has more enterprise features than the systems IBM acquired from Texas Memory in 2012. Texas Memory was among the first vendors with all-flash storage arrays, but concentrated on performance more than management. With all-flash arrays becoming more common and all major vendors selling them, customers want the same storage features they are used to in traditional arrays.

A pair of IBM FlashSystem 840 arrays can be attached via Fibre Channel (FC) to an IBM SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualization engine to provide enterprise features such as mirroring, snapshots, real-time compression, thin provisioning and IBM Easy Tier. Customers can cluster up to four FlashSystem 840s with eight SVCs. Powell said using FlashSystem with SVC slows performance a bit, but adds enterprise features.

IDC research director Jeff Janukowicz said the need for more usability features is a result of the growth of flash in the data center. IDC predicts the all-flash storage market will grow to $1.2 billion by 2015.

"Solid-state is increasingly becoming a vital part of today's data center infrastructure," he said. "As part of this transformation, all-flash systems like IBM's FlashSystem 840 are playing a key role. The 840 is data center optimized for extreme performance and provides the features that are required for the enterprise. These enterprise-grade features, such as thin provisioning and snapshots, have been missing from some the competitive offerings, thus limiting the usability for many data center managers."

The 840 uses eMLC flash only and has several configuration options ranging from two modules with 2 TB each to 12 flash modules with 4 TB each. The system uses two-dimensional flash RAID technology that includes IBM Variable Stripe RAID, which maintains performance during partial- or full-flash chip failures, and system-wide RAID 5 technologies to help prevent data loss and improve availability.

It also supports concurrent code load and maintenance for nondisruptive firmware upgrades, along with security for data at rest and hardware-accelerated AES-XTS 256 encryption. The 840 supports FC, InfiniBand and Fibre Channel over Ethernet connectivity.

Earlier FlashSystems supported SLC flash, which is more expensive than MLC flash but is more reliable and lasts longer. FlashSystem 840 is eMLC-only, reflecting a move in the industry to the less expensive flash. Most vendors now offer MLC or eMLC with software enhancements to bring its performance, reliability and error-correction capability up to enterprise levels.

"Demand for SLC flash has been steadily decreasing," Powell said. "IBM flash data protection techniques enable eMLC flash solutions with long-anticipated usable life spans and no significant performance penalties. Consequently, IBM believes eMLC is the appropriate flash storage media for most enterprise clients. Our SLC-based FlashSystem 710 and 720 are currently still available for the very small segment of clients who require that technology."

IBM did not disclose pricing for the FlashSystem 840.

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