Oracle Open World Part 2 – Flash Mobs And The Quest For Performance

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.

What is surprising is the degree of evolution and segmentation of flash storage in the few years since it has emerged as even a remotely acceptable enterprise storage technology. If we look back a few years ago, flash was equated with flash cache on large external arrays and with SSD drives, form factor and function compatible with existing disks, and differentiation was hidden in increasingly sophisticated caching and write distribution schemes to prolong the life of the flash memory cells. Fast forward to today, and we have all the options and vendors cited in my colleague Andrew Reichman’s 2008 encyclopedic treatment of solid state storage, “SSD 'Chips' Away At Spinning Disk,” along with a host of new entrants, including Fusion IO, XIO, Violin Memory, Kaminario, Pure Storage, STEC, and GridIron. And probably a few I’ve missed.

All in all, a cornucopia of flash, and I&O professional with database performance issues would be well advised to look at flash solutions before throwing more server hardware at the problem or implementing highly parallel spinning disk architectures to reduce access time for critical data.

What are your plans for flash memory in your data center?