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Pliant Looks to Break Enterprise Storage Glass Ceiling with SSD Brick; Cloud Storage Encroaches on Server Virtualization

Solid State Disk (SSD) is showing up across the technology spectrum from consumer grade laptops and PCs to enterprise storage systems. But until this week it can be argued that there really was not an SSD drive that was ready to withstand the scrutiny that some mission-critical enterprise environments are certain to put it under. This week’s announcement from Pliant Technology may well be the proverbial brick that breaks this glass ceiling that has been preventing SSD from entering some enterprise environments.

This past Monday Pliant Technology announced its new Enterprise Flash Drive (EFD) that has SSD technology at its core. However this is where the resemblance between it and other SSD products end.

Pliant specifically chose the name EFD as a means to create some segmentation between its SSD and competing products. Pliant’s intent is not to make the EFD all things to all companies. It’s intent is to create an SSD that is tailored to meet the requirements of enterprise environments be it their enterprise servers or storage systems.

To do so, Pliant built a drive that used SSD technology at its foundation. However it then added its own secret sauce so it could deliver the enterprise performance and reliability characteristics so its solution could become a “set it and forget it” type of experience that enterprise applications expect and demand.

The “secret sauce” it uses is a custom ASIC that is managed by firmware it developed. Pliant Technology’s design team is comprised of former Fujitsu engineers accustomed to working with hard disk drives (HDDs) intended for enterprise applications and requirements so it knew a thing or two about what it needed to do to make SSD enterprise caliber.

After all, what makes today’s enterprise HDDs (Fibre Channel, SAS or SATA) so reliable is not the disk drive hardware. Rather it is the firmware that is built into the HDD that manages the idiosyncrasies that the hardware will display over time. In the same respect, SSD displays some of the same types of aberrant behaviors that HDDs do.

Pliant explained that it uses SLC NAND in its two Lightning EFD products, the Lightning LS 3.5 inch that is available in 300 and 150 GB capacities and the Lightning LB 2.5 inch LB that is available in a 150 GB capacity. Since data is packed so tightly into its EFD, it is possible that when one bit is read, the read may disturb an adjacent bit and cause it to accidently flip thereby compromising the integrity of the data. While bit flip is not fatal, it does need to be detected and flipped back. It is this type of behavior that Pliant’s firmware monitors, detects and then corrects.

Another way Pliant seeks to differentiate itself form competitors is that its EFD drives possess a SAS interface with dual ports that support full duplex. So not only should applications see a substantial leap forward in performance just by using an EFD versus a SAS or SATA HDD, but because the EFD can operate in full duplex mode, applications can use both ports to read and write from it at the same time further accelerating the performance characteristics.

The 2.5 and 3.5 inch form factors with the SAS interface also have another benefit as well. SAS looks to become the primary backplane interconnect for many servers and storage systems to HDDs in 2010. By putting EFD in standard 2.5″ and 3.5″ form factors, it should help to accelerate the adoption of EFD in these systems since the EFD will look like and be managed as a SAS HDD.

Since Pliant just publicly announced these drives and came out of stealth mode itself, I would not look for Pliant’s EFD drives in any server or storage system much before the first quarter of 2010. It is customary to give any new technology a quarter or two to get all of the bugs out of the system as well as get some real world testing and solid referrals behind it. But once that is done, its Lightning EFD appears to be a prime example of a product coming to market at the right time to fill a niche at the high end of the storage market.

The other company I spent a few minutes of time with this week was Pivot3. While Pivot3 started out a few years with its VideoBank offering that functioned as an iSCSI storage offering customized for video surveillance solutions, it has since branched out to offer a cloud storage product. (I use the term “cloud storage” somewhat carefully when referring to its product since it can only scale to 12 nodes or about 140 TBs raw storage.)

In any case, what piqued my interest about Pivot3 was that at VMworld it announced it had enhanced its Serverless Computing platform to support integrated server virtualization on each node that is part of its storage cloud.

The reason Pivot3 did this is simple. It is the predominant iSCSI player in the video surveillance market and video surveillance is all about low cost. By enabling server virtualization on the individual storage nodes (each node only supports one virtual machine for now), it eliminates the need for external servers (virtual or otherwise) to host the video surveillance application which further reduces the cost of the video surveillance solution.

Those are my thoughts and observations on technologies that caught my eye this week. Have a good weekend and check in again next Friday as I should have some news to report about a company that has a new CEO.

Also I will be at the Bare Metal Data Conference in Nashville on October 8-9 and Storage Networking World the week after that in Phoenix. If you wish to catch up with me at either of these events, just drop me a note.


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