Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Fusion-io Has a Big Present for Woz’s Birthday

Tonight, flash memory technology concern Fusion-io is throwing a big birthday bash in San Francisco for Steve Wozniak, the legendary Apple co-founder, who’s both a Fusion investor and its chief scientist.

The company won’t just be partying for Woz, but celebrating an important technology advance. And while the press release it has put out doesn’t exactly make it accessible to the layman, it comes down to this: Servers that run in the cloud are going all flash.

Up to now, more often than not you’d see flash memory added as a supplement to a standard server to speed things up. The example I always use is pretty straightforward: The main microprocessors in a server that are doing the heavy computing lifting of processing data are constantly — and by constantly I mean a few million times a second — waiting around for the rest of the system to catch up and hand off more data to it. Conventional hard drives and all the pipes in the system that connect them to the processor are too slow to keep the processor running at full capacity, and so having spent the money for all that computing horsepower, you never quite get all the potential out it. Multiply this condition across thousands of servers in a data center, each with several processors in the box, and you can see how this becomes an irritating economic problem.

Fusion-io’s stock in trade has from the start been about keeping those impatient processors busy. You put flash memory chips up close to the processor, let them grab a lot of data out of the hard drive and stuff their pockets full of it and then shovel it off by the armload to the processor. More computing work gets done, and in the long run, you get more computing oomph for your dollar, or spend less on computing hardware to get the same level of work done. Got all that?

It’s because of this that companies like Facebook and Apple have loaded the servers in their data centers with Fusion-io’s memory cards. But the flash has always existed in a combined environment. Facebook, for example, treated the flash as a cache, pretty much as I described it above.

But now, using this new technology that Fusion is announcing tonight, the boxes in Facebook’s data centers are going all flash. As David Flynn, Fusion’s CEO, put it to me last week when he came to New York: “Most recently, because flash has become higher capacity and has a lower cost point, Facebook has gone to an all-flash architecture. The systems are all flash and no longer blended with hard disks.”

Typically, data centers have these big hulking storage arrays that store all the live data that’s being used, and they perform essentially the same function that the hard drive does in your PC: They hold everything, waiting for the moment when they’re called upon to be used. Yes, I’m simplifying it greatly.

You should also know that storage arrays are what companies like EMC and NetApp specialize in, and they’re generally still based on hard drives. Start-ups like XtremIO — which EMC bought — and Violin Memory are working on ways to use flash to blow up the old-school storage array business, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Today’s new product is Fusion’s play to deal its own blow to the established business for storage arrays. It’s called the ION Data Accelerator, and it’s software that the company says can transform any industry standard server into a wicked-fast “data acceleration device.”

What does that mean? Well, Fusion says a media company deployed the Data Accelerator technology on its servers and saw a 25x improvement in the performance of its SQL database, and media transcoding — a pretty data-intensive process if ever there was one — improved 8x. A dozen early customers are putting it through its paces, and yes, naturally, Facebook is one of them.

If you want to try it, you can do so in one of two ways: You can get a server with Fusion’s ioMemory added to it from one of the company’s partners, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell or IBM, and buy the accelerator software directly. Fusion will provide you with the service and support you need to get it up and running. The other way to get it is to deal with a value-added reseller who can add it and integrate it into a white box server. Basically, the technology will be pretty accessible and not just available to the big data center companies.

It also marks a potentially big step in the evolution of the use of flash in the data center generally. As Flynn put it: “We first came out to the world saying that flash belonged in the server.” As fundamental shifts go, that was a pretty big shift by itself. “Now we’re saying that the server itself can, with flash in it, replace your storage array.”

It’s the second bit of news this week from Fusion-io. Earlier this week it said, without elaborating, that it is teaming up with storage concern NetApp. And, next week, it will report quarterly earnings. Fusion has had a pretty busy time since its IPO last year.


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