eBay deploys 100TB of flash storage

Today is a big day for flash-storage startup Nimbus Data Systems: It’s rolling out its second-generation platform, and it gets to announce online auction giant eBay (s ebay) as a major customer. In fact, eBay has deployed a non-trivial 100TB of Nimbus gear. Have we finally reached the inflection point for primary flash storage?

Traditionally, flash has been used as a cache layer either within storage arrays or within servers themselves to speed delivery of hot data. The latter model is how Fusion-io’s (s fio) flash components are delivered into data centers.

Making the case for primary flash storage

Recently, though, there has been a strong movement toward using flash for storing all an organization’s primary data, not just the hot stuff that needs special attention. This has been spurred by lower prices for flash memory at the component level, as well as by a greater understanding of the energy savings and and price-per-transaction savings that flash can provide. Flash might require a bit more capital investment upfront, but it pays off in the long run.

eBay is a prime example of the benefits of flash. Nimbus Data CEO Thomas Isakovich told me that eBay had only 2.5TB of flash installed six months ago before recently upgrading to 100TB. Within the PayPal division, where Nimbus is deployed, Isakovich said eBay has cut power costs by 78 percent, cut its rack space by half and is able to better meet performance demand overall by spinning up virtual machines even faster.

Virtualization, actually, is another driving force behind the uptick in flash interest lately. Its benefits around consolidation and flexibility also bring performance overhead for storage operations.

As for the Nimbus gear, it comes in 2TB, 5TB and 10TB chunks and is scalable up to 250TB. It uses ELC NAND, which the company claims is 10 times more durable than standard MLC NAND, and runs a specially designed file system and software set. Among the features are advanced compression, deduplication, replication and thin-provisioning capabilities.

Isakovich claims that when one factors in lower file-system performance overhead and the fact that Nimbus doesn’t charge a licensing fee for its software, his company’s systems can actually come in at a lower price per gigabyte than spinning disks. His math must not be too far off: Nimbus has more than 200 customers just over a year into selling its product, and reached profitability on the back of angel funding alone.

Spreading the wealth

Nimbus Data is just part of a greater market, though, which is why the notion of mass flash adoption seems more realistic than ever before. Nimble Storage and Tintri are also serving small enterprises with a hybrid flash-and-disk approach; Violin Memory is serving the highest-performance customers; and even SolidFire is serving cloud providers as its target market. And they’ve all been raising lots of money and building their customer bases.

Add in the recent surge of flash support by mega storage vendors such as EMC (s emc) and NetApp (s ntap), and customers soon won’t be able to escape the flash onslaught.

Isakovich thinks Nimbus Data can become a $10 billion company — “the next NetApp” — by capturing the hype around flash and maintaining its competitive pricing model versus hard disk drives. That’s a long way off, and Nimbus has plenty of competition, but someone has to make that money.