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repurposing flash as DRAM, mystifying the memory choice in DIMMs, extending PCIe fabric and the strangeness of stealth mode SSD companies which already have revenue

Editor:- September 3, 2015 - if, like me, you temporarily stepped aside from the flood of SSD market related news during the past 4 weeks or so for a vacation or other reasons then what can I tell you so that you feel more back in control?

Undoubtedly (in my mind) the most significant enterprise flash related news in recent years was Diablo's Memory1 (discussed below).

Much less easy to place within any particular calendar year and to rate for its significance to future SSD history - however - due to its distinctly vaporware-like aspects and stunning lack of technical details - was the stage managed unveiling of a newly branded memory architecture by Intel and Micron - which (like the emperor's new clothes) may or may not become significant for enterprise applications in 2016, or 2017 or 2018 - depending on when we can see it working and depending on what other competitors are doing at that time.

For PCIe SSD watchers - there were incremental advances in PCIe fabric as PMC-Sierra showed it could get switches and flash to talk the same language together across rack boundaries using NVMe and RDMA.

As you'd expect - the usual sprinkle of SSD companies emerged from stealth mode.

This included not just VC funded revenue hopeful startups but also some significant customer revenue funded companies too - which had developed quietly in China and decided that maybe the rest of the world should get to hear about them too.

You can read more about these and other recent stuff in SSD news.
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Diablo's Memory1

how significant for the enterprise data ecosystem?

and a list of potential competitors too

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - August 13, 2015 (updated with competitors)
Diablo has launched an aggressive assault on the enterprise server RAM market with the launch of a new DRAM compatible emulation memory module (upto 256GB each) called "Memory1" (faqs) which can functionally and competitively replace upto 90% of DDR-4 DRAM - with higher density, lower cost flash.

Here's some of what Diablo said in its press release:-

"The revolutionary technology packs 4x the capacity of the largest DRAM modules, delivering greater capability on fewer servers and lowering datacenter costs by up to 70%.

"The same system memory slots that now hold 128 or 384 gigabytes of DRAM memory can house up to 4TB of Memory1 and process data-intensive applications that were previously beyond reach. These efficiencies are driven by Diablos breakthrough in memory design, which replaces expensive DRAM with low cost, high capacity flash, while delivering the performance an enterprise demands.

"Memory1 is deployed into standard DDR4 DIMM slots and is compatible with standard motherboards, servers, operating systems and applications. Memory1 is shipping now to select customers and will be broadly available this fall."

"Memory1 brings the low cost and high capacity of flash to large-scale enterprise and datacenter customers. It is ideal for environments that require large memory footprints per server for workloads, such as big data analytics and complex Web applications. The average Memory1 use case enables a 4 to 1 server reduction, and one customer use case requires 90% fewer servers. Diablo will initially focus on delivering Memory1 to cloud and hyperscale datacenters, which stand to see significant economic benefits because of their scale."
Memory 1 - news image
Editor's comments:- I spoke to Diablo about Memory1 in July - but I wasn't able to write about it before due to their launch date which was while I was on vacation.

Sorry about that.

But as I said to Diablo - when you've got a technology story like this - likely to have a big impact on SSD history - a few days or weeks delay in the retelling of the story don't really matter.

My gut feel assessment is this.

Diablo's Memory1 is the most significant development in the enterprise flash market in the past 3 years (since the widespread impact of adaptive R/W and DSP controller technology) and Diablo's Memory1 is the most significant development in the enterprise application server market in the past 8 years (since the migration of most enterprise SSD installed capacity to flash away from RAM and - in particular - the launch of the first flash based PCIe SSDs by Fusion-io in September 2007).

But let me clarify something important.

Memory1 is not an SSD.

Memory1 is a volatile memory which replaces DRAM with a flash array.

You'll still need some real DRAM in your system. Diablo currently recommends a ratio of no more than 10 to 1 (Memory1 to RAM). And there are OS limitations too. Currently support is limited to Linux although there are plans to support other major platforms too.

the big question - how does flash replace RAM?

Diablo didn't want to say much about how they repurposing flash.

Diablo told me - "We are not disclosing the flash technology, only that we are using widely available NAND flash. We employ several technologies to ensure endurance, an example is that we deliver volatile storage, which is less taxing on the media than persistent storage."

Diablo declined to reveal how much overprovisioning they use inside the flash array. But they did answer my question about warranty - 3 years.

Despite the absence of any definitive internal data I think I can make some guesses about how Diablo repurposes flash to behave more like DRAM. (And I'm sure many of you can too.)

Here's what I think is happening.

what is Enterprise DRAM?

At a top level - DRAM - seen from the applications server point of view - has complex and changing latency characteristics.

This is because traditionally it is the sum effect of a bunch of different latencies (as experienced by the software) due to a hierarchy of latencies which include:-
  • memory caches on the CPU chip,
  • caches external to the CPU chips,
  • real DRAM (the kind of modules you see plugged into the motherboard) and
  • emulated DRAM (the virtual memory which gets swapped in and out of HDDs and SSDs).
You've known all that stuff since forever. But changes have been coming.

In the past year or so in articles which I have collected in are you ready to rethink enterprise DRAM architecture? - it's been clear that researchers have been evaluating the memory and server experience and have realized that - depending on the application software - it's possible to get similar performance effects to traditional DRAM and CPU sets in other ways.

At the bottom level of RAM - things are much simpler.

At theheart of a DRAM cell you have a transistor which outputs a logic value which is dependent on the charge in a capacitor connected to its input. Because this charge can leak away quickly - DRAM requires a refresh cycle - which means that the charge has to be restored thousands of times a second.

It's this refresh process which generates most of the heat in a memory and which limits how many memory cells you can place in a chip.

At the heart of a flash cell you have a transistor which outputs a logic value which is dependent on the charge trapped in an insulated part of the chip. Like DRAM the charge leaks away. But unlike DRAM the charge can stay pretty valid for years.

The upside of this is that flash consumes less power than DRAM so you can pack more storage transistors in the same size chip.

The downside of this fantastic ability to hold charge is that the charging process itself is very brutal and damaging when new data is written - hence the idea of write endurance.

As we've learned from the adaptive R/W DSP flash pioneers - you can significantly improve endurance and write speeds by using less damaging charge writes combined with better ECC.

But what if you don't care about endurance at all?

At the heart of a Memory1 flash cell? - If you don't care too much about losing data when the power is unplugged - then maybe you don't need so much charge - and maybe the write can be very much quicker.

I don't know for sure what schemes Diablo uses in Memory1 - and it's probably a combination of 3 or 4 new key things which are needed to make this work - which are over and above what the company has already proved with its memory channel SSDs.

But what we've got here is a new memory type - which will not only take business away from traditional DRAM and CPUs (as a special case extrapolation of the CPU-SSD equivalency reasons which I told you about in 2003) but Memory1 will also take business away from that 3D PCM memory which Intel and Micron have been talking about too - for the simple reason that flash is a cheap and more mature technology.

This new technology from Diablo is more significant than what we had been led to expect from their previews a year ago.

It doesn't replace memory channel SSDs or hybrid DIMMs - it's a new product type - flash as RAM - which could lead to a market as significant in revenue as the whole PCIe SSD market.

I'm guessing then that Diablo will stay the #1 most researched company in the SSD ecosystem for a while as a result.

Competitors to Diablo's Memory1?

As I said above - many other SSD companies have been eyeing exactly the same applications problems which Diablo's Memory1 is designed to satisfy:- lowering the cost of server populations which rely on access to extreme amounts of low latency RAM in order to fulfill their business purposes.

While there are currently no exact form factor matches to Memory1 which give similar memory density - there are other ways to get similar results. And if you regard the server box as the socket footprint (which it really is - if you're planning to buy 10K or 100K servers) then DIMM socket compatibility - while convenient - is not essential.

My preliminary list of potential hot competitors in the Diablo Memory1 market space goes like this.

Flash based solutions.

In the current state of the memory market - nand flash is the cost leader. Alternative approaches include:-
  • software which remaps big RAM memory into flash SSDs.

    For example:- SanDisk's ZetaScale. This operates with a wide range of SSD interfaces - so users have a lot of freedom to optimize their latency / cost profile. At the extreme limits Memory1 may be faster in latency terms than most PCIe SSDs - but my guess is that some kind of future ioDrive like product (possibly optimized to strip away non volatility) would give very similar performance.

    Other SSD software companies which until recently have been in stealth mode are also coming into the latency lowering flash market.
  • in-situ processing - combined with PCIe SSD platform.

    Companies which have been talking about this since last year include:- NxGn Data, Memblaze and others. And earlier this year further validation of the concept came from researchers at MIT who showed that flash can come close to RAM rich server performance by using clunky app-specific FPGAs combined with flash.
  • Netlist? - This company which was embroiled for over a year in legal actions aimed at Diablo's first product - the MCS SSDs - is one of several in the hybrid DIMM market which might make a future pitch in this market. Having said that there's a world of difference between these DIMM compatible RAM SSDs and Memory1 - where the RAM which is used is actually in another socket supplied by someone else. Other companies in this category include Micron. But due to the market risks of shooting its other products in the foot I think Micron will prefer to position its response to this application in different ways first (with higher priced solutions).
non flash / nvm solutions

These will probably cost more than the flash based competitors.
  • Already mentioned above - high density 3D PCM from Intel and Micron. Details at the present time are sketchy. But it's reasonable to assume this will initially be offered at much higher cost than flash solutions - because it's a new technology and unlike Memory1 - a key characteristic it offers is non volatility.
fabric / flash / nvm alternatives

Another contender which converges with all the technologies above is PMC whose NVM Express over RDMA includes elements of PCIe fabric but interoperate the company's low density RAM SSD and flash SSD products.

Together these can be combined to build low cost low latency fabrics for small server clusters at a starting price point probably below PLX and much lower (scale) than A3CUBE.

Currently these fabric solutions enable users to extend the DRAM space at low microsecond latencies outside the rack rather enabling more RAM in the same rack. But I think they could also be viable technology launchpads for future PCIe connected flash memory similar to Diablo's Memory1.
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SSD ad
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the enterprise SSD story

why's the plot so complicated?

and was there ever a best time to simplify it?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - June 17, 2015
Can I tell you any single most useful thing extracted from all the thousands of incidental things and trivia I've learned from the SSD market?

In answering readers' questions about the market and in constructing major articles - I've sometimes asked myself - how do I know this stuff?

Part of explanation which I gave in an earlier article is that if you spend decades of time thinking a lot about a single subject and while doing that talk to most of the experts in that subject - and also talk to a lot of other people who have their own reasons to be interested - then something does rub off and stick.

As an educational program for understanding the SSD market - I don't recommend it to anyone else.

It's not scalable and not amenable to replication. And there are faster and more efficient ways for you to learn most of what you need to know. Which I hope includes trawling sites like this one.

So what have I learned? And what's the single most useful thing?

From a technology point of view - the technology is still changing.

And how SSDs interact with other parts of your data processing assets still has many adaptations and evolutions to get through before things can settle down.

The reason the adaptation continues to be so complicated is this.

In the 1970s when large scale integrated silicon technology began to disrupt the computer market with devices like the microprocessor and DRAM - they gave birth to a new generation of software companies. When using the earliest microprocessors you had to write all your own software. But whatever you did with the newest CPUs and memories was invariably cheaper than what had been done before. By the mid to late 1980s - these systems were faster too - and were starting to replace enterprise servers - and to rely on a complex ecosystem of software bigger than anything which had been seen before.

I was lucky in my observation point in those days to have explored the benefits of applying permutations of multiple processors, embryonic RAID and solid state storage as performance accelerators in real-time environments which included 3G databases and Unix platforms.

It was a decade later - when reporting on the benefits of enterprise SSDs here on this site in the late 1990s and early 2000s - that I realized that somehow the insights about SSDs as applications accelerators - were not widely appreciated.

The next few paragraphs provides a summary of that early accidental eureka moment for me - from my linkedin page and memory.


start of some bio stuff - related to this article

The SSDserver equivalence idea didn't seem like a big deal to me at the time (about 1988) as storage was just one of many bottlenecks my customers needed to solve.

When I was recruited into a startup called Databasix in the late 1980s - the founders could already see that new opportunities were being created to do new things based on AI and database technology - but that doing useful things in real time would only be possible by massive parallelization of CPUs (which was not a commodity at that time) and parallelization of disks (RAID for throughput) and faster storage for the latency critical parts (solid state storage).

So I and my team spent all our time playing with the fastest technology toys we could borrow (evaluate) or buy or modify and figuring out what the nature of bottlenecks were and how best to solve them in a virtualized way if possible - because many of these toys were short lived and almost every customer project changed a lot from the time it was conceived to the time it was delivered. And the only way to make it work as a business would be to make most of the core software reusable.

Anyway - then as now - there were only a small number of users who needed such crazy advanced platforms.

Finding the performance fanatics with budgets was the "business model." Our sales people found some. Which was amazing in itself as that was before the days of internet marketing. We learned a lot in a short space of years by providing platforms to researchers in the industrial, military, seismic research and related markets and also an innovative and long lived production broadcast program routing system for a major broadcaster too. It was a lot of work. We wrote all our own drivers for everything. And our objective was always to reach wire speed of whatever device we connected.

end of the bio stuff - (I'm not looking for another job BTW)


A big new hypothetical question for SSD market thinkers?

All of which - above- is the long way of introducing a question which has occurred to me often recently.

Was there ever an ideal earlier time and opportunity to inject SSD DNA into enterprise computing architecture (and OSes) which could have prevented the buildup of complex integration and associated rip and replace and bypass surgery - of so many layers of systems software - which have inevitably followed?

I'm not sure.

Very few people realized the value of doing this even in 1988. And in those days if you tried to integrate SSD acceleration yourself - it involved a lot of analysis and rewriting OS kernels to make it work in a useful way.

Certainly the software industry didn't do it.

And before then there wouldn't have been a clear need.

And after 1988 (and throughout the subsequent decade) as the enterprise became fascinated and then bewitched by RISC/Unix most CPU designers were hell bent on a course to just add more cores and DRAM and wider memory busses and faster clocks as the simplest way to keep getting faster.

So looking back now - it's clear that the standard models for computer hardware and software architecture in the silicon chip age had evolved for over 40 years without the concept of another economically useful latency layer between hard drives and DRAM.

That didn't stop SSD pioneers from trying to break in. But it was through cracks and rare business opportunities in which nearly every SSD sale required a huge customer learning curve.

It was as late as 2008 to 2009 that SSD accelerators became offered as a standard option by all mainstream enterprise server vendors and it was from that time onwards that we saw the birth of a true SSD software market.

You can see why the enterprise SSD market is the most bewildering part of the enterprise market.

It's not about flash memory.

SSDs are changing a market (data processing) which was designed without any original conception of SSDs being there in the first place.

In the modern era - SSDs began sneaking into purchase orders whenever the gaps (what was possible with SSDs compared to what was possible without) looked easy enough and lucrative enough to edge into.

And the future of the story (as I've said many times before) is that future data architectures will be managed by reference to their different interconnected storage assets (SSD) rather than (as in the past) by reference to their servers.

And all the critical costs and management decisons will be about how to control the cost of the SSDs.

Note I don't use the term "flash" here deliberately - because the enterprise SSD story started before flash was an enterprise technology and will most likely persist till after too.

Anyway - somewhere at the beginning of this blog I hinted that I might say something useful about all the stuff I've learned from talking to so many founders of SSD companies and visionnaries in the market.

Surprisingly the one enduring and universally useful true thing I've learned isn't about the technology.

(Today's hot chip management technology looks like steam punk when viewed from the future.)

No it's this...

When talking to long time SSD pioneers and serial company founders and those whose creations have transformed this industry of ours - I often ask - why are you still doing this? It can't be the money. Surely you could just retire and go fishing or start a boutique investment company.

The answer every time is something like this.

The SSD market is the most exciting place to be working right now. Why would you want to be somewhere else?

For me too - it's the challenge of figuring out where all these roads are going and what will the landscape look when the whole territory has been discovered, staked out, built up, rustled and burned down and then rebuilt again. The unknown and exciting combined with tantalizingly predictable narratives with often surprising characters is the SSD story which keeps me going.

In conclusion there never was a best time in the past for the enterprise SSD market.

No past "Heroic Golden Age of SSD".

The best time is still now.
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Hmm... it looks like you're seriously interested in SSDs. So please bookmark this page and come back again soon.

I've written thousands of stories and guides related to the SSD market. Some of the most popular can be seen here.
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StorageSearch.com is published by ACSL. © 1992 to 2015 all rights reserved.

Editor's note:- I currently talk to more than 600 makers of SSDs and another 100 or so companies which are closely enmeshed around the SSD ecosphere.

Most of these SSD companies (but by no means all) are profiled here on the mouse site.

I learn about new SSD companies every day, including many in stealth mode. If you're interested in the growing big picture of the SSD market canvass - StorageSearch will help you along the way.

Many SSD company CEOs read our site too - and say they value our thought leading SSD content - even when we say something that's not always comfortable to hear. I hope you'll find it it useful too.

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SAS SSD market size
according to Micron
SSD news (September 3, 2015)
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SSD ad - click for more info
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0 to 3 seconds - hold up times in 2.5" military SSDs
exploring the extreme limits of design
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SSD ad - click for more info
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As with any new memory technology it will take time and experience to prove whether Optane memory has enterprise grade reliability.
Memory Channel SSDs
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SSD ad - click for more info
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now consider this...

90% of the enterprise SSD companies which you know have no good reasons to survive.
AFA market consolidation - why? how? when?
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When the SSD socket fits - but the datasheet doesn't - the problems in sourcing modern replacements for end of life and obsolete embedded SSDs.
BOM control and the mythical "standard" industrial SSD

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SSD ad - click for more info

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For many AFA startups a single customer like that is bigger than their whole business plan.
what can you infer when all flash array startups compare themselves to EMC?

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A couple of years ago - if you were a big company wanting to get into the SSD market by an acquisition or strategic investment then a budget somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion would have seemed like plenty.
VCs & SSDs

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When you read something about the SSD market which seems to contradict something which you previously held as a working hypothesis - what do you do next?
can you trust SSD market data?

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In-situ SSD processing - is about closing important gaps in the intelligence of message passing and the speed of data access between application processors and SSD controllers.
12 key SSD ideas which changed in 2014

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The SSD market during its short history (spanning only 40 years) has managed to accrue an imaginative body of literature which includes truths, half truths, mysticism, misunderstandings. myths, legends - and in some cases - downright balderdash - when it comes to the subject of SSD costs, pricing and justifications.
Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing


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how fast can your SSD run backwards?
11 Key Symmetries in SSD design


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If you've seen or read - The Hobbit - then you'll be familiar with the concept of the riddle game. Something similar is playing out now in the enterprise flash array market.
playing the enterprise SSD box riddle game


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One of the challenges for the enterprise SSD market when designing new rackmount products is to understand complex customer needs and decision criteria - which go beyond the traditional bullet points.

New segmentation models are needed because the enterprise SSD market is moving into uncharted territories and use cases where a considerable proportion of the customer needs which affect buying behavior are still formally unrecognized as being significant (in market research data).
Decloaking hidden and missing segments in the analysis and identification of market opportunities for enterprise rackmount flash


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The user mood is changing from - can I afford to use SSDs? to a realization that - I can't afford not to.
where does all the money go?


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Even in its infancy - endurance management was a complicated technical subject - but if we look back from the perspective from the ultra-complexity of today - it was much easier to manage and understand.
SSD endurance - the forever war - now in 3D


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You don't have to understand the internal details of how these individual techniques work. And with hundreds of patents already pending in this topic there's a high probability that the SSD vendor won't give you the details anyway (not even under NDA). It's enough to get the general idea.
Adaptive flash care management & DSP ECC IP in SSDs


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"...Application-unaware design of memory controllers, and in particular memory scheduling algorithms, leads to uncontrolled interference of applications in the memory system"
Are you ready to rethink RAM?

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"A critical test of whether you really understand the dynamics of a complex market like enterprise SSDs - is whether you can predict what rational buyers might do when offered new product options at the extreme limits of - for example - price."
Boundaries Analysis in SSD Market Forecasting



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Like cosmological dark matter - which accounts for most of the mass in the universe but which is invisible to optical telescopes - the SSD dark matter customers will be bigger in mass than the traditional known enterprise users.
The big market impact of SSD dark matter



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"A new generation of enterprise SSD rackmounts is breaking all the rules which previously constrained price, performance and reliability."
exciting new directions in rackmount SSDs



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don't ask how we're going to make money out of it yet
Hostage to the fortunes of SSD



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"...the SSD market will be bigger in revenue than the hard drive market ever was."
How will hard drives fare in an SSD world?


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"You'd think... someone should know all the answers by now. "
what do enterprise SSD users want?


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If the flash memory in your supplier's SSD or array costs 2x as much as that of a competitor - because it uses more of the same generation chips or uses more expensive preconditioned older style chips - to do the same job - their profit margins and your electricity costs will suffer.
Efficiency as competitive advantage
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"The winners in SSD software could be as important for data infrastructure as Microsoft was for PCs, or Oracle was for databases, or Google was for search."
all enterprise data will touch an SSD