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Innovation

Dell plots PCIe-flash with memory pooling

Dell has dropped hints that it is developing PCIe-linked flash cards that integrate technology from recent stealth acquisition RNA Networks.At the Dell Storage Forum on Wednesday, company executives talked about RNA's memory-pooling technology and Dell's PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) work, andalluded to a product that will see the two fused together.
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor on

Dell has dropped hints that it is developing PCIe-linked flash cards that integrate technology from recent stealth acquisition RNA Networks.

At the Dell Storage Forum on Wednesday, company executives talked about RNA's memory-pooling technology and Dell's PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) work, and alluded to a product that will see the two fused together.

"RNA basically takes memory and shares it across many servers," Dell Storage general manager Darren Thomas said. "Flash memory just opens up a whole new world of performance for us — we're talking 300,000-times faster reads and writes because you're now on the PCIe bus."

"It's one of the most exciting technologies we have, because it would take the performance capabilities of flash and put it at Tier Zero," he added. Tier Zero is the closest storage to the processor.

With a PCIe-linked flash card with memory pooling, Dell would compete against Fusion-io and EMC to win customers such as Facebook and Apple, which require large amounts of very responsive server-linked storage.

RNA was acquired by Dell in June. The Oregon-based startup makes technology that pools server memory into a single, unified item that can be accessed by individual applications. It allows companies to consolidate a raft of cheap servers into a single object with the characteristics of a much larger and more expensive server.

This, combined with a PCIe flash card — a technology that would be easy to create for Dell, one of the largest IT companies in the world — would give the Round Rock, Texas-based company a product that paired the ability to run a workload across a federated memory architecture with hardware that massively increases the amount of flash available to Dell servers and storage.

"[With RNA, Dell is] able to do thing across servers and storage that we've never been able to do before," Thomas said. "It's as though we've gone from the stone axe to the bow. The RNA technology that we brought... will allow one of the storage tiers to be the server's bus itself."

RNA technology is likely to be rolled out as a unified product across Dell's server and storage products, ZDNet UK understands.

"Absolutely there will be integration with RNA," said Bob Fine, head of marketing at Dell Compellent. "It's a more efficient architecture — the interconnect between host and SAN is 16GBps, but the interconnect between CPU and local flash on the host is 1000X."

But implementing the technology could be tricky, according to John Abbot, chief analyst at the 451 Group. "RNA's product was primarily software, running over InfiniBand or gigabit Ethernet links, pooling main memory rather than PCIe-based flash. [Its potential] depends how Dell plans to link the flash and DRAM components," Abbot said.

If Dell is planning a piece of kit that marries PCIe flash cards with RNA software, then substantial development work will have been required, Objective Analysis's Jim Handy said.

"Perhaps RNA Networks has already produced code to accelerate the I/O stack, and that could be used with a PCIe flash card," the analyst said. "But if they haven't done that, I don't see why a PCIe flash card would appeal to a user of RNA Networks's RNA Messenger or RNA Cache."

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