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IBM FlashSystem updated with MLC, built-in software

IBM readies first-quarter update of FlashSystem storage arrays with denser MLC-based flash and integrated compression, virtualization and management.

With its new FlashSystem arrays unveiled last week, IBM upgraded its flash technology and added real-time compression, virtualization and management features as part of the base price for the premium model.

The IBM FlashSystem V9000 and FlashSystem 900 all-flash arrays, which are due later this quarter, succeed the V840 and 840 models that shipped about the same time last year. The new 20-nanometer multilevel cell (MLC) flash design in the updated products will enable IBM to improve system density by up to 40% and bandwidth by about 20% and hold performance at a consistent level, according to Michael Kuhn, vice president and business line executive of the IBM Flash System product line.

The higher-priced FlashSystem V9000 also features an integrated software stack and scale-up and scale-out capabilities that IBM claims allow the array to grow from a minimum of 2 TB to 456 TB of usable capacity with eight storage enclosures, or 2.2 PB of effective internal capacity with real-time compression factored in. The FlashSystem 900 scales to 57 TB of usable in a single system, and does not include the virtualization capabilities and software stack with features such as compression, dynamic tiering and replication that ship with the V9000. Both systems support 16 Gbps Fibre Channel, 10 Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet connectivity, and the 900 also includes 40 Gb quad data rate InfiniBand ports.

IBM Fellow and CTO Andrew Walls said he visualized and dreamt about the latest FlashSystem release two-and-a-half years ago when IBM bought Texas Memory Systems.

"This isn't fluff. This isn't just marketing stuff around something that's already happened. This is truly new and revolutionary technology," Wall said. "On the V9000, this isn't just a couple of virtualization nodes that virtualize some 900s. It is a fully integrated, Tier 1, full-featured storage system."

IBM has shipped more than 4,000 FlashSystems since the brand launched in April 2013, according to Kuhn.

With the new FlashSystems, IBM switched from enterprise MLC (eMLC) to MLC NAND chips. IBM makes its own flash devices, which it now calls MicroLatency modules. But unlike the handful of flash array vendors that also make their own modules, IBM had used higher-cost eMLC flash chips until now. 

IBM now buys MLC NAND flash chips from Micron rather than eMLC chips from Toshiba. Yet the new "IBM Enhanced MLC" and trademarked FlashCore technology comes close in endurance to the 30,000 write-erase cycles of eMLC, and the flash modules remain capable of microsecond latency, according to Kuhn.

"Behind the 'enhanced' part of it are some of the unique things we were able to do with this technology [such as] advanced error correction, algorithms to place data differently, and variable stripe RAID and RAID protection at the system level," Kuhn said. "We're able to do this because our system's not based off of commodity SSDs. We procure the NAND flash chips directly and put our innovation and technology on top of that."

IBM instituted a new flash endurance guarantee whereby the company pledges to replace flash that wears out free of charge for customers under warranty or maintenance. Solid-state drives (SSDs) can wear out over time as the program-erase cycle breaks down the oxide layer that traps the electrons. IBM had lagged many other all-flash array (AFA) vendors by not offering a wear-out guarantee.

The flash endurance guarantee is part of a five-point IBM FlashSystem Tier 1 guarantee that also promises "MicroLatency" performance, data reduction of at least 3:1 based on "Comprestimator" performance modeling results, up to seven years of 24x7 support with optional price protection, and "peace of mind" no-charge complimentary IBM services for Tier 1 opportunities, including 40 hours for 228+ TB systems up to 556 TB or 80 hours for 556+ TB systems delivered this year.

The new FlashSystem models last week followed by days IBM's rebranding of its storage software under the name IBM Spectrum Storage. Storage products with hardware and software combined, such as IBM's FlashSystem, DS8000 and Storwize, will retain their existing brand names, Kuhn said.

Software features based on capabilities in IBM Spectrum Virtualize software, which has its origins in IBM's SAN Volume Controller, are included in the base price of the V9000. Users get a single management interface to ease setting up and partitioning LUNS, migrating data from other storage and controlling integrated features such as thin provisioning, data copy services and real-time compression. Kuhn said customers had to purchase separate licenses for features such as compression and remote mirroring in the past.

Customers also have the option to virtualize external storage, and they can snap in IBM Spectrum Control software for an additional fee to add capabilities such as storage analytics and policy-driven automation that were previously in the Tivoli Productivity Center code stack.

Kuhn said IBM plans to integrate its own inline deduplication later this year or early 2016. For now, customers have the option to use third-party dedupe from vendors such as Atlantis Computing and Permabit.

But Kuhn said real-time compression is the data reduction technology of choice for databases and business-critical applications. He said IBM's compression has produced data reduction ratios of 5 to 1, and IBM customers have the option to the turn the compression on or off on a per-volume basis to optimize performance. The FlashSystem price point can drop below $2 per GB with compression taken into account, making the price of all-flash systems as cheap as or less expensive than arrays with high-performance spinning disks, according to Kuhn.

Tom DeJuneas, IT infrastructure manager at Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated (CCBCC) in Charlotte, N.C., said his company will consider replacing all of its disk-based storage with flash if the price-per-GB numbers work favorably with the V9000's built-in compression. CCBCC's current SVC system lacks support for the I/O cards necessary for compression, so DeJuneas is looking to do a proof of concept with the FlashSystem V9000.

At the least, DeJuneas hopes to significantly reduce the company's spinning disk and perhaps use the V9000's Easy Tier functionality to ensure the most critical data stays on flash. CCBCC currently stores about 500 TB to 600 TB in IBM XIV storage and 20 TB of data from its enterprise data warehouse and main supply chain applications in IBM FlashSystem 810 and 840 arrays. FlashSystem helped the company to reduce some batch jobs from 45 minutes to six minutes and improve demand forecasting, DeJuneas said.

IBM did not change the list prices for the denser FlashSystem V9000 and 900 over the V840 and 840, according to Kuhn. He said pricing for the FlashSystem 900 starts at $50,000 to $60,000, and for the FlashSystem V9000, at $70,000 to $80,000. The V9000 with 2.2 PB effective capacity in a single rack sells for over $2 million, Kuhn said.

"This is no longer intended as a data center storage turbo additive device but is squarely intended to replace high-performance disk systems," said Mark Peters, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., based in Milford, Mass., via an email. He added, "It doesn't feel like the same IBM that's been having so many challenges elsewhere in its storage portfolio. There's a coordination of engineering ability, marketing intent and mutually beneficial partnership [with Micron]."

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The IBM V9000 seems to be in a class of its own now, but does it live up to its claims of system density improvement?
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