I recently received an e-mail from a company called Fusion-io (www.fusionio.com) asking me if I could join it and Steve Wozniak for a breakthrough announcement at the New York Stock Exchange. It’s hard to pass up an invitation like that.
The Woz, of course, was a cofounder of Apple Computer and designer of the Apple I and II, the joy of computing life around 30 years ago. He is now chief scientist at Fusion-io, and he was joined at the event by Tom Bradicich of IBM, a VP of systems technology and an IBM fellow.
Fusion-io is shaking up the server world with a new twist on solid-state drive (SSD) technology. Since these drives are usually much more expensive than traditional electromechanical disk drives, they typically gain favor only in special circumstances such as when you need a rugged drive and are willing to spend the extra bucks.
But when electronic engineers see an opportunity to discard mechanical elements from a computing system, they will go the extra mile to figure out how to make the new drive faster, use less energy, and be cost-competitive with the mechanical design.
Woz wants to let the world know that solid disk drives have truly arrived, at least for certain server applications, signal-ing the end of rotating drives for some major applications. If his prediction is true, this is a paradigm shift in the industry.
“Fusion-io attracts me because they do more with less. And that was a key tenet of my own engineering life. Engineering is all about efficiency. A good engineer finds a more efficient way to do something than a poor engineer,” Woz said.
“Fusion-io is the first company since Apple that I’ve admired so much for its thinking,” he added. “It was like the promise of Apple that it’s going to change things forever in the world of computers. Fusion-io will have a big impact on the architecture of computer storage systems. It starts with NAND flash memory. It’s like a disk with no moving parts, which is a pure concept to an electrical thinking person.”
The industry has surely jumped on the concept of the solid-state disk. Many standalone versions are on the market as well as many embedded in personal computers like notebooks and netbooks. The methodology to date, said Woz, has been to use the same structure you’re used to, but make the drives out of solid-state NAND flash, which has lower power, higher speeds, and many efficiencies.
“But it’s not a good paradigm,” Wozniak said. “It’s not a new type of storage architecture. It’s just replacing one type of storage with another that’s faster.”
Herein lays the crux of the innovation. Fusion-io founder David Flynn attempted to solve server architecture problems where there was a mismatch between the speed of the processors and the slower disk drives. He used PCI Express for memory I/O.
This resulted in a board that plugs into the PCI Express slot of a server, contains copious amounts of single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash, and is essentially an entire storage area network and more. According to Wozniak, the board is an order of magnitude improvement in benchmark tests of disk-drive performance in almost every category.
IBM was at this event for a reason. Bradicich announced that Fusion-io’s core ioMemory technology will serve as the basis for a solid-state storage solution offered exclusively in IBM’s family of System x servers. These servers address the storage needs of data-heavy applications such as those used in social media, e-commerce, and financial services.
Designated the IBM High IOPS Adapter, the product is expected to help database, application, and system administrators architect their data centers to meet performance goals that could not be realized with traditional, disk-based storage solutions.
For example, by using the server-deployed storage tier, known as Flash Memory Tier (FMT), data-heavy graphics and 3D renderings from medical research can be processed in minutes instead of hours.
The power and cooling costs of these solid-state technologies are less than 1% of traditional spinning drives. And since the High IOPS Adapter is deployed directly in the server, storage rack space requirements can be reduced to zero in some applications.
This may be an IBM product and an Apple guy like Woz hasn’t often been in IBM’s corner. But I’m sure he appreciates the elegance of this solution, especially as chief scientist of the company who is responsible for the adapter’s technology.