SanDisk, Diablo Intro ULLtraDIMM Flash Storage, Claims Performance Better Than PCIe

Flash storage developer SanDisk on Monday officially unveiled ULLtraDIMM, a new solid-state storage technology the company claims offers consistent performance an order of magnitude better than that of PCIe flash storage.

ULLtraDIMM, designed by Milpitas, Calif.-based SanDisk in partnership with Ottawa, Ontario-based Diablo Technologies, moves flash storage to the memory channel of industry-standard servers to provide flash storage performance with a sustained latency of under 5 microseconds, or about one-tenth that of PCIe, said Brian Cox, SanDisk's senior director of outbound marketing.

"ULLtraDIMM puts the flash chips into a new form factor," Cox said. "It puts a new memory module into a DDR3 memory slot. But it's really storage."

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The ULLtraDIMM flash storage modules, which have been designed with 200- and 400-GB capacities, are built with SanDisk's flash memory, controllers and controller software, and DIMM technology. Part of that technology came from SanDisk's July acquisition of Smart Storage Systems.

ULLtraDIMM also includes technology from Diablo that translates DDR3 protocols to allow the flash storage to talk directly to a server's processor, Cox said.

"ULLtraDIMM eliminates the I/O bus and talks directly to the processor because it's on the memory bus," he said. "This makes it faster than any storage technology in the world, including SSDs and PCIe. It puts storage closer to the processor than ever."

Jerome McFarland, product marketing manager for Diablo, said that PCIe-based flash storage, which until now has been the fastest storage technology, still faces latency issues because the PCIe bus is shared with other peripherals including graphics cards and Ethernet adaptors that all compete for the processor's attention.

Another bottleneck is media management, as most PCIe devices have a single ASIC managing the NAND, McFarland said.

"ULLtraDIMM and the memory channel architecture eliminate those bottlenecks," he said. "It lets customers address a wide range of solutions and simplifies server deployment while increasing performance."

IBM seems to agree.

IBM on Thursday unveiled its sixth-generation x86-based server and storage architecture. Included in that news was the introduction of several servers and a high-density storage solution with integrated eXFlash memory channel storage. eXFlash is IBM's version of ULLtraDIMM, built for the company under an OEM agreement by SanDisk, Cox said.

Cox said he expects other server and storage OEMs to adopt ULLtraDIMM. However, it could be late 2014 before ULLtraDIMM hits a wider channel, as it requires server BIOS makers like Phoenix Technologies and American Megatrends (AMI) to modify their software, he said.

NEXT: Waiting In The Channel For ULLtraDIMM

Todd Swank, senior director of product marketing at Equus Computer Systems, a Minneapolis-based system builder, said he is looking forward to seeing ULLtraDIMM come to the broader channel.

"For certain products like high-performance computing, the performance of ULLtraDIMM could be amazing," Swank said, adding "200 to 400 GBs capacity? That's huge. It will be interesting to see how it is priced."

How quickly a technology like ULLtraDIMM is adopted depends on the price and performance ratio, Swank said. "I'm guessing it will be pretty expensive," he said. "But there is always going to be someone who will want that performance."

SanDisk did not discuss ULLtraDIMM pricing because the initial market is server and storage OEMs. However, SanDisk's Cox said that, given the consistent low latency of ULLtraDIMM vs. the fluctuating latency of PCIe, it could actually result in lower cost for some applications.

He gave as an example a solution for deploying 10,000 virtual desktops. Using PCIe, he said such a solution might require 100 physical servers, each of which would be running 100 virtual desktops. However, with the low latency of ULLtraDIMM, it might be possible for 50 physical servers to each run 200 virtual desktops, resulting in a cost of $114 per virtual machine vs. $265 per virtual machine using PCIe.

Swank said it is fun to watch the evolution of flash storage technology.

"The SATA SSD market is coming to the end, and SAS will become the mainstream," he said. "PCIe is next. Where do you go from there? Putting flash storage on the memory bus, like ULLtraDIMM. After that? Could Intel someday put SSDs in the processor? It's kind of crazy."