Flash is for everyone, says storage startup Skyera

Skyhawk Large

Stealthy startup Skyera is dropping the veil Tuesday to start talking up new solid-state storage systems it vows can deliver an eye-popping $3-per-GB price for “native” storage — that is before compression and de-duplication. That’s compared  to competitive offerings that come in at about $10 per GB.

Solid-state, or “flash”, storage is hot, hot, hot, hot. A few proof points: Pure Storage just netted $40 million in Series D funding and storage kingpin EMC bought XtremeIO for $430 million last May.

But Skyera claims it’s out-doing Pure Storage, Violin Memory or Nimbus Data and others in making solid-state storage more price competitive with as inexpensive as hard drives and by resolving longevity issues that make IT buyers nervous about adopting the technology. The company claims it can cram 44 TB of storage in a 1u rack that comprises a ground-up-engineered system including the flash controller, RAID controller, storage blades and network interface.

Taking flash mainstream, really

“Competitors got their [native] cost to $7 or $8 per gig and that puts you at the high-end niche level of enterprise applications where IT has to put such a premium on performance they’re willing to pay ten times more than a comparable hard disk system,” Skyera sales VP Tony Barbagallo told me in an interview. “Solid-state storage will not go mainstream at those prices and our goal is mainstream.”

Skyera’s founder and CEO is Rado Danilak, who founded SandForce, a storage technology company LSI bought last year for $400 million. He and his engineering team has a ton of credibility in this arena. SandForce controllers own about 80 percent of the market, according to some estimates.

To get to cheap flash enterprise storage, Skyera uses inexpensive Multi-Level Cell (MLC) NAND flash, but found a way to do it to prolong the lifespan of the media.  It is able to use high-density sub-20-nm MLC flash because its controller dynamically adjusts as the medium ages to reduce damage over time.

Putting flash everywhere

The use of consumer-grade flash in enterprise storage is not new.   “What’s cool here is how much capacity [Skyera] gets in a very small footprint and that they’ve integrated the switching capability right into their array,” said Jim Bagley, senior analyst with Storage Strategies Now, a storage consultancy.

The Skyera team appears to have come up with the next generation of that popular SandForce controller and crafted a huge performance improvement in the process.

Skyera will demonstrate its Skyhawk systems at next week’s Flash Memory Summit. Expect a spate of other flash-related news to come at that event and at VMworld, the following week.

Most storage vendors still talk about using flash judiciously in the enterprise, reserving it for jobs that demand the fastest response. Flash often acts as a “turbo” to an existing storage engine, said Mark Peters, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.  “Skyera is saying:  ‘forget that, use solid state for everything.’ The only reason we haven’t done this already is money. It all comes down to price. And, if Skyera has done what it says it’s done on price, this truly is disruptive,” he said.

Fusion-io, a maker of in-server flash, stands at about $11 per GB, Nimbus Data, a Skyera competitor, at about $10 per GB s0 if Skyera can deliver its promised $3 per GB target, it’s a pretty significant cut.

George Crump, lead analyst for Storage Switzerland agreed. “I get asked all the time when flash will take over the data center and the answer is: when it’s the same cost as hard drives.”

If Skyera Skyhawk  lives up to its billing, this is a big step toward that goal. “The next question is if or when they’ll get leapfrogged? We’ll see,” Crump said.

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