The enterprise disk drive market has changed for ever. Back in 2007 Fujitsu Siemens Computers' CTO Joseph Reger predicted datacentre flash drive take-up by 2010. EMC seems determined to prove him wrong. It's introducing datacentre flash drives already.

EMC has announced its Enterprise Flash Drive (EFD) for Symmetrix DMX-4 arrays. The drives are single-level cell STEC NAND flash arrays with 73 or 146GB capacities. Single-level cell flash (SLC) is faster than multi-level cell (MLC) flash, also more expensive, but cannot store as much data. Wear-levelling algorithms extend the limited write cycle life of the cells, to as much as 2,000,000 write cycles. EMC positions MLC as a consumer technology and says that wear-levelling algorithms don't work as well on it as they do on SLC drives.

The EFD, with fast random and sequential read-write performance provides a cache-like tier 0 with traditional spinning Fibre Channel hard drives providing tier 1. It fits in a standard DMX-4 drive slot. The performance boost in terms of access time to data in the tier 0 EFD drives is huge. Disk access latency is simply eliminated. EMC suggests that it can be around thirty times faster than DMX-4 hard drive access time.

Storage industry revolution

David Donatelli, President, EMC Storage Division, said: “With this announcement, EMC has again revolutionized the storage industry." He's not wrong.

EMC's Chuck Hollis, VP for technology alliances, says The EFD delivers the about the same number of IOPs as roughly 30 standard 15K 300GB drives. Each IO has 1/10th the response time of any single or pooled disk drive. From a green angle it is better too as each EFD draws 98 percent less power than a DMX-4 hard drive.

Reger suggested that many enterprises only use a fraction of their fast hard drive capacity as they spread data across drives to reduce access times by having many spindles deliver the data. This is a costly way to purchase a fairly limited performance boost.

EMC will be saying that, with EFDs, customers can spend a little more and get a whole lot more in performance terms.

The market is those customers with DMX-4 arrays who would like but cannot afford solid-state storage for their high transaction rate applications. They would pay about ten percent more overall for a Symmetrix array with four EFDs. EMC suggests that EFDs cost about thirty times more per megabyte than DMX-4 fast disks do.

Symmetrix' Enginuity microcode supports the EFD products, courtesy of new algorithms. Existing Symmetrix facilities such as SRDF, TimeFinder and others are supported; the EFD just looks like a disk.

EMC states that its new solid-state storage tier, “tier zero,” is fully supported by the Symmetrix software management suite, enabling storage administrators to simplify the provisioning of all of their storage tiers with advanced management tools including Dynamic Cache Partitioning, Virtual LUNs, Quality of Service Manager, and now Virtual Provisioning (similar to thin provisioning) to simplify overall management and application performance

There is a hint that flash drives could become available for Clariion and Celerra products too.

The impact

Steve Duplessie, ESG's senior analyst, said: “If it creates as big a gap in real life transaction processing shops as it does on paper, this could very well be one of those killer advantages that only appear every 10 to 15 years.”

Other disk drive manufacturers will have to follow suit. Expect Hitachi Data Systems and IBM to very quickly bring flash hard drive technology to their high-end arrays so as not to be left behind by EMC. We can also expect the second tier drive array vendors: Dot Hill; LSI; and Xyratex, to bring forward plans to include the technology in their array products.

Enterprise storage array vendors such as 3PAR, Fujitsu Siemens Computer, NetApp, Pillar and others will also be fairly keen to bring the flash technology to their products to preserve performance and price/performance advantages they currently enjoy versus EMC's DMX-4 products.

Disk drive manufacturers like Seagate, Western Digital and others can now see the flash pincer attack on their business very clearly. At the notebook end of the market the small drive formats are falling to flash like dominos: 0.8-inch, 1-inch, 1.5-inch, and 1.8-inch are all going flash with only Toshiba confident of 1.8-inch hard drive survival, for now. The core 2.5-inch market will be next unless there is some price/capacity life extender for hard drives in this format space.

At the high-end flash has opened up a performance front where HDDs can't compete, ever. Flash is simply faster and more reliable. As flash technology prices come down then tier 1 data storage could be take over. The core HDD market looks likely to be bulk online data storage; tier 2 with serial ATA (SATA) and, possibly, SAS drives. That looks set to become the HDD industry sweet spot and that's where the key metric is going to be capacity/$. HDDs can't compete on performance so they have to compete on capacity.

The onrush of flash is going to encourage continued consolidation in the HDD industry. The news of Hitachi, Fujitsu and Toshiba talking about a possible HDD joint venture is emblematic of this. Only the large HDD vendors will survive this flash attack on their industry.

EMC has moved swiftly and decisively. This morning the enterprise disk drive market changed for ever.