In his 1956 dystopian sci-fi novel “The City and the Stars”, Arthur C. Clarke puts forth the fundamental design tenet for making eternal machines, “A machine shall have no moving parts”. To someone from the 1950s current computers would appear to come close to that ideal – the CPUs and memory perform silent magic and can, with some ingenuity, be passively cooled, and invisible electronic signals carry information in and out of them to networks and … oops, to rotating disks, still with us after more than five decades[i]. But, as we all know, salvation has appeared on the horizon in the form of solid-state storage, so called flash storage (actually an idea of several decades standing as well, just not affordable until recently).
The initial substitution of flash for conventional storage yields immediate gratification in the form of lower power, maybe lower cost if used effectively, and higher performance, but the ripple effect benefits of flash can be even more pervasive. However, the implementation of the major architectural changes engendered across the whole IT stack by the use of flash is a difficult conceptual challenge for users and largely addressed only piecemeal by most vendors. Enter IBM and its Flashahead initiative.
What is Happening?
On Friday, April 11, IBM announced a major initiative, to the tune of a spending commitment of $1B, to accelerate the use of flash technology by means of three major programs:
· Fundamental flash R&D
· New storage products built on flash-only memory technology
Well actually I meant mobs of flash, but I couldn’t resist the word play. Although, come to think of it, flash mobs might be the right way to describe the density of flash memory system vendors here at Oracle Open World. Walking around the exhibits it seems as if every other booth is occupied by someone selling flash memory systems to accelerate Oracle’s database, and all of them claiming to be: 1) faster than anything that Oracle, who already integrates flash into its systems, offers, and 2) faster and/or cheaper than the other flash vendor two booths down the aisle.
All joking aside, the proliferation of flash memory suppliers is pretty amazing, although a venue devoted to the world’s most popular database would be exactly where you might expect to find them. In one sense flash is nothing new – RAM disks, arrays of RAM configured to mimic a disk, have been around since the 1970s but were small and really expensive, and never got on a cost and volume curve to drive them into a mass-market product. Flash, benefitting not only from the inherent economies of semiconductor technology but also from the drivers of consumer volumes, has the transition to a cost that makes it a reasonable alternative for some use case, with database acceleration being probably the most compelling. This explains why the flash vendors are gathered here in San Francisco this week to tout their wares – this is the richest collection of potential customers they will ever see in one place.