Flash storage probably holds the most promise of all the new technologies to hit the data center in decades. In the same way that virtualization transformed the data center landscape, it looks as if increasing amounts of flash storage will be installed in every data center over the next decade – its performance, small footprint, power and reliability are such obvious benefits that they cannot be ignored.

The three most talked about trends of the moment are flash storage, software-defined anything and open source architecture. Together, however, they could provide a new way of building data centers.

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Making SSDs

Micron is at the center of this – it produces NAND flash chips, which can be written and read in small blocks (or pages). The company packages these chips into solid-state disks (SSDs) and PCIe flash cards to be added to servers and storage units in data centers, as well as in laptops and other systems.

The semiconductor market is bitterly competitive, and when we visited Micron in Silicon Valley it had just reported a three percent drop in revenue year on year in its quarterly results. The company says the dip is due to falling PC demand, and will be made good by its data center activities, as well as ambitious plans to expand into mobile.

Micron is incorporating improved chip manufacturing technology, moving from planar multi-level cell (MLC) flash to 3D triple-level cell (TLC) flash, with quad-level cell (QLC) on its way. The chips are currently made with 16nm technology, and Micron wouldn’t say when this is likely to change, or to what process scale, but there is a prospect of faster, larger devices: Micron says 50TB SSDs could be on the way, and the next generation should allow for high-capacity in-memory applications.

Micron has set up a storage business unit (SBU), led by Darren Thomas, to go beyond selling chips and standard SSD/PCIe components: “We are not concentrating on the vendors – we are aiming at the big finance houses and super-users,” says Thomas.

3D NAND for high density

He explained that 3D NAND enables the highest-density flash devices ever developed and that they are more efficient, engineered to achieve better cost efficiencies than 2D NAND. Micron believes the new architecture offers better performance and endurance, beating the characteristics of spinning disks.

Storage specifically designed for the data center is in development.

Flash is only four percent of the storage market at the moment. It’s generally felt that price holds it back, but Micron’s vice president of storage marketing, Eric Endebrock, says it’s more about the software layer. Micron is working with Oracle, VMWare and others to incorporate flash, says Endebrock.

The company says it has developments in the pipeline for the next 12 to 14 months that will change the way the industry views flash storage. It talks of the “servification of storage,” and contends that the move to scale-out architectures is forcing cloud operators to use flash.

Flash is only four percent of the storage market at the moment. It’s generally felt that price holds it back

Some markets are moving faster, says Rob Peglar, vice president of advanced storage at Micron’s storage business unit: “The vertical markets we are most interested in are commercial laboratories and high-performance computing, electronic design and automation, financial services, especially high-frequency trading and hedge fund management companies, the life sciences, media and entertainment, oil and gas, and video surveillance.

And Micron most definitely wants to be out of the ghetto of storage subsystems, says Thomas: “We’re taking a very hard look at taking Micron into the systems level. Watch this space.”

High tech playground

During our visit, Micron showed us its ‘petting zoo’. It’s basically a tech playground, where developers play with new-generation products. In the zoo, we saw the ‘superbox,’ a high-performance, high-density iSCSI proof-of-concept demo server. A 1U rack-mounted box, it features an x86 CPU with 64GB of RAM, running Linux, and 12 x 8TB SSDs. The 96TB server delivers two million IOPS with over 15Gbps of bandwidth. Micron wants to deliver 3D TLC NAND in fast modules, with lower-cost 3D QLC for the flash vaults. Micron calls them ‘tubs,’ while others call them ‘data lakes’ – such is the mangling of the English language by the eternal IT marketing machines. But whether they are tubs or lakes, the data pools that Micron wants to help us store and use are big enough to drown in.

Micron has a big jump to move from the small animals of its ‘petting zoo’ to the big beasts in the data center. But if it works, the future may be very flash indeed.

This article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of DatacenterDynamics magazine