SSDs: Speeding Up the Data Center

7 May

Unless you’re editing film or manipulating massive PhotoShop files, odds are pretty good that the performance problems you encounter on your personal computer aren’t local. They emanate from a data center out on the Internet.

A classic example I encounter is making an online purchase. After trolling through the Web site, loading my shopping cart with goodies, and winding my way to the purchase page, I click the Buy button. And wait. And wait.

Sometimes the website’s owners are wise enough to toss up a splash screen warning me not to hit the back button or asking me to be patient, because compared to every other process in the transaction actually making the purchase takes a while. That’s because in the background the e-commerce vendor is requesting from other service providers all sorts of data about the credit card I’m using. Is the card current? Do I have enough credit? Is it really me using the card or am I a fraudster? Getting the answers can take a while.

A big part of the problem is that those other service providers, such as Visa, American Express, and others, have enormous amounts of data that need to be processed before they can deliver the answer to those basic questions: card’s current, good credit, no fraud. And much of that data is stored on hard disk drives (HDDs).

Although today’s high-performance HDDs spin at up to an astonishing 15,000 rpms, that’s still slow compared to the near instantaneous response of solid state drives (SSDs). The problem with SSDs, also called flash drives, is that they are darned expensive when deployed at the capacity level required in a data center.

Or, maybe I should say, were darned expensive.

I’ve noticed a few developments lately that have begun to shift the cost equation. First, due to the proliferation of flash memory in consumer electronics, there are more SSD manufacturers, making the market more competitive. As a result, prices have come down.

Nimbus Data Systems Inc. in San Francisco is taking advantage of these lower costs and now offers a pure SSD storage system starting at around $25,000 for 2.5 terabytes of capacity. CEO Tom Iskavorich told me this is comparable with high-end 15,000 rpm HDD offerings if you factor in the cost of his company’s HALO operating system, which comes bundled with the hardware for free.

And data warehouse giant Teradata Corp.* is getting into the SSD game with specialized appliances for data centers dogged with less responsive HDDs. Scott Gnau, chief development officer, explained to me that SSD devices have additional characteristics that appeal to IT managers. With the cost of energy rising, he said, companies are beginning to evaluate products on a “performance per watt basis.” He said SSDs save up to 87% in energy costs compared with HDDs, making them an appealing alternative beyond their sheer performance.

Iskavorich added yet another metric: I/O per floor tile. That is, the input/output of storage capacity compared with the space the device uses in a data center. Given that SSDs need about one-tenth the floor space of HDD systems, for companies with limited real estate to expand, this could prove to be an important metric.

These data center-oriented SSD systems are new to the IT market. So we may still have to remain patient for our credit cards to clear. I just hope it’s not a long wait.

[*Disclosure: I have done consulting work for Teradata Corp. in the past.]


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