IBM Lassos Texas Memory Systems For Flashy Storage
August 27, 2012 Timothy Prickett Morgan
IBM has been partnering with SandForce, now part of storage controller maker LSI, and Fusion-io for server-based PCI-Express cards with flash memory welded onto them to boost server performance. But now, with the acquisition of Texas Memory Systems, there’s a new flash storage sheriff in town.
Just as I was getting ready to go on holiday on August 16, IBM shelled out an undisclosed wad of cash to acquire TMS, which is the pioneer in memory-based accelerated storage. The company was founded in Houston back in 1978, at the dawn of the minicomputer and supercomputer ages, in order to help accelerate workloads such as sifting through seismic data trying to find oil deposits in the wake of the oil crisis of the time. The company’s original accelerators were based on RAM instead of flash, which had yet to be invented and commercialized, and they were also used by various government agencies for boosting signal and other kinds of processing that they can’t tell us about or they would have to kill us.
Because of the much faster data access times that flash has compared to disk drives, it has been woven into both servers and storage arrays in the past several years as a kind of go-between between slow disks and faster main memory in both a server and a storage array. (At this point in the IT racket, a storage array is just a special kind of server with storage management software on it and a lot more disk ports than a typical server has.)
In 2000, as main memory prices dropped and memory capacities increased, disk drive latencies had hit a wall even as capacities were on the rise, and TMS built its first outboard RAM-based appliance, the SAM 500, that sported a whopping 64 GB of memory and 15 Fibre Channel interfaces to link to servers. In 2003, an improved RamSan-320 came out with eight 2 Gb/sec Fibre Channel links, and three years later the RamSan-400, which sported 128 GB of memory and eight 4 Gb/sec Fibre Channel links, came out. Today’s top-end RamSan-440 sports 512 GB of memory that can do 600,000 read or write I/O operations per second with a latency of 15 microseconds.
The company also sells flash-based storage accelerators based on both single-level cell (SLC) and cheaper multi-level cell (MLC) non-volatile flash memory. The flagship product here is the RamSan-70, which TMS calls the 900 Pound Gorilla in the data center, which has a raw capacity of 1.37TB of SLC flash that is formatted down to 900GB, with the extra capacity being saved for when cells wear out from being written too many times. This monster PCI-Express 2.0 card fits into an x8 slot and delivers a maximum bandwidth of 2.44 GB/sec of bandwidth across the flash and can do up to 1.2 million IOPS reading at a latency of 70 microseconds and 440,000 IOPS writing at a latency of 30 microseconds.
The RamSan-710 is also based on SLC flash, and crams 5 TB of flash memory into a 1U form factor that can deliver 5 GB/sec of bandwidth into and out of the flash storage over four 8 Gb/sec Fibre Channel ports. You can also use InfiniBand networks to link to the RamSan-710, which is good news for Power Systems ships since the remote I/O links enabled on the GX++ buses on Power7 processors are based on InfiniBand, so in theory IBM could offer very tight coupling between RamSan flash appliances and its AIX and IBM i servers. (IBM is still using 20 Gb/sec or DDR InfiniBand for the GX++ bus, and RamSans are using DDR or FDR InfiniBand, which run at 40 Gb/sec and 56 Gb/sec, respectively.) In any event, the RamSan-710 can deliver 400,000 IOPS either reading or writing, with 175 microsecond latencies on reads and 35 microsecond latencies on writes.
The top-end RamSan-820 appliance packs up to 24 TB of hot-swappable MLC flash into a 1U chassis and delivers 4 GB/sec of bandwidth over that memory, yielding 450,000 IOPS at 110 microseconds for reads and 400,000 IOPS with 25 microsecond latencies for writes. It has the same Fibre Channel and InfiniBand links as the RamSan-710 above. You can do five entire writes of this box every day for a decade and you won’t burn out its flash memory, according to TMS.
Incidentally, TMS uses IBM’s PowerPC processors as the main brains on its flash controllers and adds Xilinx field programmable gate arrays loaded with storage algorithms to accelerate their processing as well. By doing this work on the flash controller, the server processors don’t get overburdened when they make storage requests.
There are a dozen companies that are trying to peddle all-flash external arrays as server adjuncts, including Xtremio, which was just acquired by EMC for $430 million in May, as well as Violin Memory (which is an IBM partner and which built its original products atop System x iron), Kaminario, Nimbus Data, WhipTail, and NexGen Storage, just to name a few. In addition to TMS, SandForce, and Fusion-io, STEC and OCZ Technology are also peddling flash-based PCI-Express storage cards for servers. EMC is working on its own cards, called VFCache, and Hitachi says it will build its own flash cards, too. TMS is unique in that it is the first of the flash card makers to allow operating systems to boot from flash PCI-Express cards, but clearly they will all do this shortly.
Clearly what IBM wants are some experts that really understand RAM and flash as it relates to storage, since this is of particular importance to supercomputing workloads of the future and data center workloads today, and some working products to sell and intellectual property to hoard and maybe resell. Big Blue no doubt wants to stop shelling out so much money to its flash drive partners and figure out how to profit from the fact that IDC is telling CIOs that over 3 exabytes of enterprise-grade flash storage will be sold in 2016.
TMS has around 100 employees and doesn’t seem to have taken on any venture capital in recent years. IBM says the deal will close later this year and that solid state memory “is a critical component of our new Smarter Storage approach to the design and deployment of storage infrastructures, and part of a holistic approach that exploits flash in conjunction with disk and tape technologies to solve complex problems.”
IBM intends to weave TMS products into servers (calling out PureSystems in particular because PR people have to help build that brand) and storage; presumably Software Group will also have an angle on this, getting de-duplication software working atop flash, which runs like a bat out of hell compared to the overhead it imposes on disk arrays. It would be interesting to see a de-dedupe appliance plugged into a PCI-Express slot that then could offload clean data onto disks and then onto tape. There’s all kinds of possibilities, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Oracle, and Fujitsu snapping up any number of flash storage card and array makers. Time is money in the storage market right now, and there may not be time to do the engineering and still make the money.