IBM doubles down on Flash storage, will invest $1 billion R&D

With the move, Big Blue is the latest on the bandwagon to aggressively push Flash into the data centers. IBM's Flash push is notable because the company has the heft to make solid-state disks an enterprise staple.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

NEW YORK — IBM on Thursday outlined its Flash storage plan, which includes a $1 billion investment in research and development and a series of systems that will use solid state drives.

With the move, Big Blue is the latest on the bandwagon to push Flash into the data centers. Developments like big data are pushing Flash storage mainstream in the enterprise because companies need to tap into so-called hot data — information that needs to be used real-time. Fusion-io, EMC, NetApp and other storage players have also formulated Flash storage strategies.

At an event in New York, IBM's Steve Mills, head of IBM's software and systems division, said Flash is at a key tipping point and IT will see all-solid state data centers sooner than later. "Adoption of SSD is definitely taking place," said Al Candela, head of technical and services at Thomson Reuters. "You can argue over time it's going to be more cost effective to implement Flash."

Now, Mills is largely preaching to the Flash storage choir, but the importance of IBM pushing solid-state aggressively is notable. Why? IBM has a massive customer base, operates enterprise data centers and has the services unit to push all-Flash systems more than other vendors. It's one thing for Fusion-io or a smaller vendor to convince next-gen companies like Facebook to go all-Flash. It's another issue entirely to drive all-Flash data center adoption to Fortune 500 customers with an economic argument. 

Mills said that inflection points are hit when innovative technology meets economic scale. "We think we're at that point with Flash or solid-state disk," said Mills. Flash has been around for a while, but the economics didn't line up. Mills said economies of scale, cost reduction and new opportunities in big data will drive Flash data centers.



He added that "the rotating disk has served us well," but what does become clear is that the economics have shifted (toward Flash). Mills added that Flash can run $10 per gigabyte compared to $6 per gigabyte for rotating disk drives. However, traditional drives aren't fully utilized. "There's no question that Flash has compelling economics," he said. The economic variables break down like this:

  • Data center space savings by putting 1 petabyte on one floor tile
  • Cooling
  • Better application performance
  • Lower software via fewer cores, licensing and maintenance and hardware costs via better utilization and fewer servers
  • Durability leveraging IBM's research and engineering on Flash
  • Better operational data

IBM's pitch toward all-Flash data centers revolves around the argument that they are 30 percent less expensive relative to traditional data centers. Mills said Flash can end storage sprawl in data centers. 



Unlike other Flash data center pitches, IBM focused primarily on dollars and cents. Specifically, IBM executives said that Flash will save you on software licensing. The primary reason is there are fewer cores, better performance, and customers won't need to overcompensate with application licenses. 

To push its Flash systems, IBM's plan goes like this:

  • Establish 12 centers of Flash competency around the world. These centers will demonstrate proof of concepts, real data and business benefits. These centers will be in China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore, South America and U.K. and U.S.
  • In addition, IBM launched a FlashSystem line of all-Flash storage appliances. These products are based on the Texas Memory Systems acquisition. IBM touted the FlashSystem 820, which is the size of a pizza box and can store 24 terabytes of data. The FlashSystem 820 features Flash 20TB RAID data capacity, MicroLatency technology from IBM and enterprise grade reliability.
  • The company will integrate Flash into hybrid systems throughout its hardware line-up.
  • PowerSystems and DB2 pureScale will also integrate Flash.

As for reference customers, Sprint Nextel recently cut a deal to install nine IBM flash storage systems in its data centers. Here's a look at some of the IBM Flash customer use cases. All of use cases revolve around response time. 

  • Karim Abdullah, director of IT operations at Sprint, said the company started using Flash storage because it implemented an all-you-can-eat wireless plan and the requests and billing changes taxed storage. The bottom line improvement was that call center reps could access customer data quickly. Abdullah added that Flash has been critical to lowering power consumption in the data center as well as manpower and data center square footage.
  • Candela said the company used Flash for its trading platform and to handle higher values. "There's sensitivity to latency," said Candela. "I'm looking to lower latency and our footprint overall. I'm using Flash to speed up applications." Candela noted that Thomson Reuters has to hit service level agreements to handle trade orders. "Traditional storage would take in excess of three milliseconds. Simply porting my application I could achieve sub-millisecond handling," he said. Candela will roll Flash systems throughout his data centers.
  • Rick Mattingly, director of IT Infrastructure Projects at Kroger, said the company started looking at Flash storage a year ago by putting databases on solid-state storage. Kroger needed Flash for virtualization to boost performance — especially for virtual desktops. "When you take that traditional desktop away, things like log-on time are a big deal because you took something away from them (the employee) in the first place," said Mattingly.

More on Flash in the data center: 

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