With Help From Fusion-io, Facebook’s Data Centers Are Going All Flash

Published on January 16, 2013
by Arik Hesseldahl

flash_madnessFusion-io, the company that uses flash memory to turn garden-variety servers into super servers, announced a new product today, and it has some important implications for one of its marquee customers: Facebook.

Facebook has been a Fusion-io customer for a long time, along with a handful of other companies, including Apple, that use its flash-based technology to speed up the individual machines in their data centers.

Today, Fusion announced that its latest product, Fusion ioScale, which has been available to existing customers like Facebook for a while, is now generally available to new customers as well. The implications for data centers aren’t trivial. I talked with CEO David Flynn about this last week and he summed it up to me simply: Data centers are going all flash. Hard drives are on their way out. Get used to it.

Previously, Fusion’s play has been in enhancing system memory — DRAM chips, which are fast but only hold on to as much data as a computer’s processor needs to get immediate work done — with flash memory chips, which can store data longer, even after the system they’re in has been powered down. The point has been to speed up the amount of work a processor can get done by eliminating those long pauses — long for a computer, anyway, because they’re measured in nanoseconds — when a computer’s processor is sitting around doing nothing but waiting for the next batch of computing work.

Now Fusion is starting to bring flash into the data center’s storage tier. With ioScale, the idea is to bring as much as 3.2 terabytes of storage that’s tuned for the industrial-strength machines in data centers; if you use four in one machine, you boost that to 12.8 terabytes.

Eventually, Flynn told me, hard drives will be pushed out of data centers entirely, even for long-term archival storage purposes. “We are jointly planning with Facebook for when that becomes possible, and we think it will happen within a couple of years,” he said.

Flynn, who only half in jest refers to hard drives as “spinning rust,” says that once data centers convert to all flash, their energy requirements become a little looser. “If you get rid of all your spinning rust, you do not have to control the humidity and temperature of your data center as precisely as you have to now. You can do more open-air cooling, and cooling is a single point of failure,” he said. “These data centers consume as much power to condition the air as they do to power the systems themselves, and that makes the data center itself more than twice as expensive to operate.” Thus they’ll be able to run warmer, and less expensively.

The disclosure came at the Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara, where Facebook was expected to comment on the topic as well in a series of announcements that also involve processor giant Intel. The chip giant just revealed that it is collaborating with Facebook on the design of a new “disaggregated, rack-scale server architecture” that takes advantage of some new Intel technologies, including silicon photonics.

Fusion-io shares are up more than 2 percent today on word of the new product. The shares fell 4 percent during 2012.

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