EMC strikes servers with Project Lightning flash cards

The VFCache (formerly Project Lightning) PCIe flash cards are EMC's first piece of hardware for servers rather than storage, and provide a halfway house for data as it passes between servers and the storage area network
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

EMC has released its Project Lightning PCIe flash card, its first product for servers, taking it into competition with Fusion-io.

The 300GB VFCache cards, developed under the 'Project Lightning' codename, were officially launched on Monday. The cards store and cache information on servers. According to EMC, VFCache gives businesses a low-latency, high-throughput halfway house for data as it travels between the processor and the storage layer.

"PCIe technology is an amazing technology... an order of magnitude better than what [enterprises have] had before," said Barry Ader, a senior director of product management for EMC. "Think of it as a new tier of storage that sits in the server, closer to the application and closer to the CPU."

PCIe allows hardware to connect to a server bus, forming a direct line of communication to the processor.

EMC's technology, which began shipping to customers in October, takes it into competition with PCIe flash specialist Fusion-io. When used with EMC storage hardware, VFCache cards have features that are not available with Fusion-io cards. For example, EMC can tweak VFCache cards to work well with EMC's proprietary Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST) software.

Each VFCache card can link to any type of storage, but customers that have EMC VMAX, VMAXe, VNX or VNXe equipment will see better performance, as the company's FAST technology can span the storage hardware and the cards, Ader said.

FAST helps administrators move data onto an appropriate storage tier. With VFCache and FAST, the most regularly accessed data can be kept on the cards, while the rest can be split between low-cost storage array SSDs, and yet lower-cost HDDs of varying speeds.

EMC plans to add deduplication technology to VFCache in a few months, Ader said.

The cards support Windows 2008, 2008 R2, 2008 R2 SP1; Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.6 and 5.7; and VMware vSphere 4.1 and 5.0. They use  34nm single-layer cell (SLC) flash from Micron and have a sub-50 microsecond latency. SLC flash technology has a higher cost than multi-level cell (MLC) flash used by Fusion-io and other companies in the flash storage industry.

VFCache pricing was not disclosed.

In contrast with EMC VFCache, Fusion-io has its upcoming auto commit memory, a technology that it has said will let its cards bypass the host operating system to boost data transfer rates. Fusion-io also offers cards with greater storage capacities than EMC.

EMC is trying to "escape the storage wall they've put themselves behind" with VFCache, according to David Flynn, chief executive of Fusion-io. "It's fascinating [that] they're trying to encroach on the server vendors' turf."

Several months ago, EMC said it was "not trying to be server guys."

"It's a mature business in that regard," Pat Gelsinger, its chief operating officer, told ZDNet UK in October. "But we are trying to get the storage hierarchy [to be] more flexible in this virtualised cloud-orientated datacentre environment."

The cards let EMC place EMC-controlled hardware and software into a company's servers that communicate back to EMC storage. The extension of FAST onto servers via the VFCache cards also broadens the reach of EMC's software.

Thunder in the distance
On Friday the company gave details on a soon-to-launch server-networked flash appliance named Project Thunder.

Project Thunder is a collection of VFCache cards that sit in a single appliance and are connected to an application server.

"By putting a bunch of lightnings together in an appliance you have scalability and shareability," Ader said. "I think high-frequency trading is the one example that is clear that makes sense for something like Project Thunder."

EMC will start shipping Project Thunder for customer evaluations in the second quarter of 2012, he said. The company is aiming the device at the top 100 Fortune 500 companies.

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