New “Tier 0” SSD Card Provides Interesting Twist on Data Protection

Over the last few years, the performance demands of applications have outstripped the ability of backend disk storage systems to keep up with them. This has resulted in storage becoming a major bottleneck in the performance of Internet search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.), transaction oriented applications (airline reservation systems, credit card processors, stock trading systems) and even slowing the performance of corporate email applications such as Microsoft Exchange. This need for speed has resulted in the emergence of new tier of storage referred to within the enterprise space as “Tier 0” storage.

The technology most often associated with Tier 0 is a new form of storage called Solid State Drives (SSD) that address the performance requirements of these aforementioned applications. SSD functions similar to how the memory on your PC in terms of performance but provides one distinct advantage over memory – it retains information stored to it after it is powered off so it acts like both disk storage and memory.

However the main obstacle standing in the way of the wide spread adoption of SSD is its price as it is financially out of the reach of most organizations typically starting at a price point of $100,000 or more per TB. Further, this SSD technology is only available on enterprise network-attached storage systems that start in the $250,000 price range. So for any company to even consider taking advantage of SSD technology, they are looking at an expenditure of a minimum of $350,000 or more to obtain it.

As a result, its use so far is largely restricted to enterprise companies that buy SSD for only their most profitable and/or mission critical systems where performance is an absolute necessity and SSD’s value is clearly demonstrable. However this does not diminish the needs of the vast majority of companies who still need this level of performance for many of their enterprise applications.

It is this gap that a new product called the ioDrive from a company by the name of Fusion-io looks to fill. What makes Fusion-io’s ioDrive so unique (and disruptive) is that it is so simple to understand and deploy while making SSD available at a fraction of a cost of when deployed in other networked storage solutions.

Fusion-io puts its SSD technology on a network card companies can insert it into a corporate server similar to how they place an internal disk drive into the server. The server then recognizes and treats its ioDrive just like a disk drive and stores data to it in the same way. However the real difference that companies notice is in performance. Fusion-io has seen the speed of applications jump by as much as 100-fold or more because it is so much faster than the disk storage they were using before. Further, companies can insert the ioDrive directly into a server and avoid the need to buy $350K+ external storage systems that offer this functionality. Instead, they obtain the amount of SSD storage that they need at a fraction of the old price while still achieving the same performance benefits when using SSD in a more expensive, external networked storage system.

Now here’s the interesting twist. Anyone close to the enterprise storage space knows that disk is becoming a primary target for backup for these companies because it is so much faster that tape during backups. But why is disk as a backup target so much faster than tape? A major reason is that companies cannot stream data to modern day tape drives at a fast enough rate to drive the speeds of today’s tape drives. If anything, faster speed tape drives have actually hurt the tape industry because there is so much congestion on corporate LANs during backup periods. As a result, tape drives end up spending much of their time stopping and starting waiting for data to arrive and backups fail leading to users wanting to abandon tape as a backup target.

This new Fusion-io ioDrive challenges this paradigm in two important ways. First, companies can move corporate databases and other high performance applications from external storage systems back onto internal storage. This is important because this eliminates storage traffic to external storage systems and keeps it internal to the server. Second, because SSD is internal, fast and the pipe to the network is now dormant, the server can now pump the data during backup times fast enough from the server to the tape drive to take advantage of the speeds of today’s tape drives. This eliminates the current performance problems that tape drives currently experience now and may actually result in a situation that backup to tape actually performs better than backup to disk.

It is important to remember that the ioDrive is still just coming to market as is the company behind it so at this point it is unclear if this company will survive, especially in this current economic climate where the tolerance for change among IT managers is low. However there is no denying the promise of ioDrive or its disruptive nature. It potentially offers companies a way to achieve the higher performance they need for their most performance-intensive applications while also giving them a means to solve their current backup-to-tape problems in one fell swoop without changing out their tape infrastructure. Fusion-io’s technology therefore has significant and positive ramifications for the storage management industry as a whole and could well signal longer term a forthcoming shift in how all size companies manage their computing infrastructures.

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