IBM To Pump $1 Billion Into Flash Storage
April 15, 2013 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Big Blue likes to throw its billions around to show that it is an IT big shot, and when IBM uses the “B” word, you know that it is pretty serious about something. Usually it is dividends and share buybacks, but sometimes it is when the company sees an unstoppable force, like the $1 billion investment in Linux in the wake of the dot-com bust, or when it sees it needs to grease the wheels of commerce, as with the $4 billion in financing for partners that the company made available late last year.
The next hot area that IBM sees needs some serious investment is flash-based storage, and last week the company said that it was investing $1 billion in flash technology and also opening up a dozen competency centers relating to flash storage and the means to accelerate its deployment in the data center to speed up I/O bound applications.
“The economics and performance of flash are at a point where the technology can have a revolutionary impact on enterprises, especially for transaction-intensive applications,” explained Ambuj Goyal, general manager of systems storage within IBM’s Systems and Technology Group. “The confluence of big data, social, mobile, and cloud technologies is creating an environment in the enterprise that demands faster, more efficient, access to business insights, and flash can provide that access quickly.”
Goyal is a hot-shot at IBM, having led the development of the RS/6000 SP PowerParallel supercomputers as well as the Deep Blue chess playing program that ran on it. He was also in charge of the creation of the WebSphere middleware, which got its start for IBM’s Winter Olympics systems in 1998 and evolved into an immense product line and business for Big Blue. More recently, Goyal was chief technology officer for Software Group, ran IBM’s Lotus and then its database businesses, and before taking over the storage business in January, Goyal was in charge of the 23,000 engineers who design IBM’s chips, servers, and storage and spearheaded the development of the Flex System hardware and PureSystems infrastructure and application stacks.
The $1 billion investment apparently does not include the undisclosed sum that IBM paid to acquire flash-based storage array maker Texas Memory Systems, which had over 100 employees when IBM bought it and which got its start back in 1978 building RAM-based accelerated storage for seismic data analysis for oil and gas companies. (Hence the Houston location for TMS.) My guess is that TMS probably fetched around $300 million, but it is hard to say because the company has not ever dipped into the venture funding or private equity markets to my knowledge and it has been privately held all this time.
Anyway, IBM says that it is ponying up the $1 billion in flash cash to do research and development to create flash-based storage arrays and features for its servers as well as tweaking software that makes use of flash. It did not elaborate further on how this money would be divvied up and whether this was a new investment or something it was already doing to make its software and systems friendly to flash. Being a cynic, I am pretty sure IBM was already spending a lot of money on this, and that the $1 billion is existing investment plus some incremental cash.
To demonstrate the capabilities of flash in February–and quite possibly to convince the top brass that it made sense to make such a big investment in flash storage–techies at IBM Research took two racks of high-end FlashSystem 820 flash appliances (formerly known as the TMS RamSan 820), which each have 24 TB of flash in a 1U appliance, and used them to push an OLTP workload running on a collection of Power Systems machines. The setup put 40 of the FlashSystem 820 arrays against 10 Power 730 servers running a DB2 workload, for a total of 480 TB of flash storage. And that cluster of flash arrays was able to drive more than 6 million I/O operations per second into and out of the DB2 cluster.
The flash in this test setup consumed 19,000 watts, which is not a small amount but which is about half of what a high-density server rack eats. The more important thing is that to get the same IOPs using spinning disk drives, you would need 630 racks of storage arrays, and this would take approximately two years of planning and installation (IBM has to be exaggerating here) and would burn 4.5 megawatts.
Small wonder, then, that IDC is estimating that nearly 3 exabytes of enterprise-grade flash storage will be sold in 2016.
The RamSan 720 and 820 arrays that were re-launched by IBM as the FlashSystem 710 and 820 machines last week use PowerPC processors from IBM as their controllers, as many disk arrays in the past did. (Many of them have shifted over to Intel‘s Xeon processors, with low-end arrays moving down to Atom server chips.) The flash arrays also include field programmable gate arrays from Xilinx that run storage algorithms and speed up their performance while at the same time not burdening the PowerPC controller with this part of the storage workload. When you are driving 24 TB of flash, everything has to be moving quite fast indeed.
If you want to look at the feeds and speeds of the FlashSystem 720 and 820 arrays, IBM just published a Redbook on them (PDF). The FlashSystem 720 is based on single-level cell (SLC) flash and is targeted at write-heavy workloads; it tops out at 12 TB in a 1U enclosure. The FlashSystem 820 is based on enterprise multi-level cell (eMLC) flash that is more expensive but is better at read-heavy workloads and tops out at 24 TB in a 1U chassis. You can link to the arrays with 8 Gb/sec Fibre Channel or 40 Gb/sec InfiniBand links, and a rack with 42 of the FlashSystem 820 arrays could push up to 210 GB/sec of bandwidth and do 20 million IOPs. (The racks in the test above were less than half full.) Windows, Linux, and AIX systems are supported as is the Virtual I/O Server for the PowerVM hypervisor. It stands to reason that this latter method is how IBM i will be able to link to the FlashSystem arrays, but it is possible that if there is enough demand, a native IBM i driver could be written. (Why not just drop the AIX one in PASE?)
Brace yourself to spend some big money on these FlashSystems. The base enclosure costs $16,000 and it costs $28,500 for either a 1 TB SLC or 2 TB eMLC flash memory module. So that is $358,000 for a FlashSystem 820 with 24 TB or a FlashSystem 720 with 12 TB.
If you want to try out the FlashSystem iron, the competency centers are supposed to be up and running in China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore, some unknown location in South America, the United Kingdom, and the United States before year’s end.