How consumer demands drive enterprise flash storage

In IT, bigger isn’t always better, but it can mean better performance. However, flash storage pioneer Fusion-io (s fio) has released a pair of new components that more than double the capacity and improve performance of its previous-generation products on the latest, smaller generation of NAND flash technology. Being able to do more on less space is critical for enterprise flash providers, which must keep up with short consumer flash innovation cycles while operating within long enterprise IT buying cycles.

Keeping cost down and performance high

The problem encountered by companies trying to put flash into servers or storage arrays, Fusion-io CEO David Flynn told me, is that consumer concerns drive flash production cycles. Every year or so, there’s a new generation of flash developed for use in consumer devices such as iPads(s aapl), and each generation delivers more capacity on a smaller scale. This is great for consumers, because smaller flash drives that store more data both cost less to manufacture and present a better value in terms of dollars per gigabyte.

However, Flynn explained, the smaller units are inherently less reliable and perform worse at the chip level, which isn’t exactly great for enterprise IT vendors. And it’s not like they can just keep using the same old larger NAND geometries to keep performance levels consistent. Customers want to pay less for flash storage, but “older generations of flash get more expensive when they’re no longer on the leading edge because the memory fabs don’t want to keep producing them.”

Compounding the issue is that budget-conscious business customers aren’t as freewheeling as consumers when it comes to making buying decisions. By the time a vendor like Fusion-io has qualified its newest products with server partners, started selling them and gone through a customer’s six-month proof-of-concept qualification, the next iteration of consumer flash is already on the market. And the customer still needs to use its new flash storage gear for two or three years before it’s ready to buy new stuff.

Knowing this, the logical question seems to be whether the enterprise flash market will ever move enough units to have as much sway with memory fabricators as the consumer flash market has, which would help keep older generations in production longer. Flynn answers this query with a question of his own: “Do we want it to?”

“How long would a processor maker survive if it didn’t follow Moore’s Law?” he continued. It’s the same thing with flash: As footprints get smaller and capacity gets greater, customers will want to buy more of it. That means even more overall production and even lower prices.

Only option is to adapt

So, says Flynn, all enterprise flash vendors can do is keep up with the latest generations of NAND production while maintaining the performance that their customers demand. Thankfully, he added, the changes are incremental with each generation, so a well-designed product can last for several generations before a major overhaul is in order. Fusion-io’s ioDrive family was created for the 5(x)-nm design and lasted through the 4(x) and 3(x) generations.

Today’s big news is the ioDrive2 and ioDrive Duo2, which leverage the latest 2(x)-nm NAND design. The new family more than doubles capacity to 2.4 TB while actually improving performance to more than 700,000 read IOPS and more than 900,000 write IOPS. Flynn credits the performance boost in part to Fusion-io’s decision to provide memory controller software rather than trying to act like a hard-disk drive and use a microcontroller.

From Fusion-io’s perspective, at least, it’s best to drive new levels of performance by teaching an operating system to do something new, rather than by mimicking the hard-disk drive it’s used to. The numerous flash-storage vendors selling memory arrays to replace existing hard-disk arrays might disagree, but it seems likely that they all share the same common concern around keeping their enterprise IT wares from falling victim to a consumer-oriented NAND flash market.