Dell Intros TLC 3D NAND Flash, Brings All-Flash SC4020 To $1.66/GB Raw

Dell on Monday unveiled what it called the first all-flash storage array to feature TLC 3D NAND technology, which the company said brings the cost of all-flash storage solutions to as low as $1.66 per raw gigabyte of capacity.

Dell is adding the new TLC 3D NAND memory from Samsung in its SC4020 all-flash storage arrays and hybrid storage array, as well as in its SC8000 family, said Alan Atkinson, vice president and general manager for storage at the Round Rock, Texas-based company.

"TLC 3D is a game changer in flash storage price points," Atkinson told CRN. "We've done a lot of clever work to offer this technology with the same performance and warranty of other flash technology."

[Related: Performance At All Costs: 11 Speedy All-Flash Arrays]

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That "clever work" is necessary when using TLC 3D NAND in enterprise-class storage, as it is a lower grade of flash memory than the SLC or MLC flash widely used in storage arrays.

Atkinson said that the new flash technology will fit in with Dell's multi-tier storage architecture as a tier where data is read from but seldom written to. This is because TLC 3D NAND memory wears out faster with multiple data writes compared with SLC and MLC flash, but flash memory in general is not affected by data reads.

"Our multi-tier architecture provides for different tiers of flash," he said. "The end users don't write data to TLC 3D. We manage that. The users don't see TLC 3D as a read-intensive drive. Instead, their data writes land on MLC. The architecture then handles aggregate writes to TLC 3D."

Because of the low-cost of the new flash technology, the Dell Storage SC4020 can be configured with multiple tiers of flash memory for as low as $1.66 per gigabyte in an all-flash configuration, or as low as 58 cents per gigabyte in a hybrid flash and hard drive configuration. Those prices are for raw capacity, Atkinson said.

Dell is not the only company targeting low-cost flash storage. Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif., in June introduced a new all-flash version of its 3PAR array with prices as low as $1.50 per GB, while Sunnyvale, Calif.-based NetApp in June introduced the AFF8000 all-flash array with a starting price of under $25,000.

Atkinson said key to understanding the price is looking at whether the capacity quotes are for raw capacity or after using some sort of data reduction technology like compression or deduplication.

"HP's $1.50 per GB is counting data reduction," he said. "We could play those games, too. Certain applications like VDI offer data reduction of 10:1. Other applications cannot be reduced. But if you look at the raw capacity costs, I don't think anyone is near us. This is not a small delta to the competition. This is a large delta."

The new TLC 3D flash memory is available in capacities of up to 3.8 TBs per drive, letting the Dell Storage SC4020 offer up to 90 TBs of capacity in 2U of rack space.

That is a significant upgrade in capacity, and hints at the kind of capacities that will be coming soon, said Michael Tanenhaus, principal at Mavenspire, an Annapolis, Md.-based solution provider and long-time Dell partner.

"Look at the flash drive road maps," Tanenhaus told CRN. "We're seeing SSDs with over 20 TBs coming within a year or two. That will be crazy cool. And the strength of Dell's Compellent storage architecture is that it adopts to new technology easily."

Imagine 24 SSDs with 20 TBs each, Tanenhaus said. "That's 480 TBs of flash in a 2U array," he said. "This is just the beginning of cool."

Tanenhaus said he is not concerned about the lower grade of the TLC 3D flash memory. "Customers may pay more for flash memory that allows more writes, but in the end, they may not need it," he said. "Customers in the enterprise are not writing to one drive. They're writing across multiple drives. So that starts to de-emphasize the wear-and-tear question."

Tanenhaus said he sees only one issue with the 3D NAND technology. "This is too new to be used for encrypted data yet," he said. "So the real focus now is on price."

This new flash storage technology in many ways changes everything about storage, said Paul Clifford, president of Davenport Group, a St. Paul, Minn.-based solution provider and longtime Dell partner.

"It's not so much the innovation of the new flash memory," Clifford said. "It's the major impact it will have on spinning disks. We'll be able to get more performance with six of these new SSDs than we get with 72 15,000-rpm hard disks. The way we approach capacity and performance today needs a balancing act between flash and spinning disks. For companies with the money, they'll do what it takes to get the performance they need. For the rest, they want speed, but are concerned about capacity. The new technology lets us take care of both."

Clifford said he doesn't want to declare spinning disks dead yet, but it is an interesting idea. "It's like saying tape is dead," he said. "People have been saying that for 20 years."

Dell's Compellent storage architecture is giving Dell the opportunity to be first-to-market with the new flash memory technology as it allows new types of drives to plug easily into existing storage arrays, Clifford said.

"It's the beauty of the Dell architecture," Clifford said. "Other storage manufacturers will have to retool. For Dell, just add the new drives. With this technology, small companies can go all-flash, while larger companies can now add flash everywhere."

The Dell Storage SC series of arrays are slated to start supporting the new TLC 3D NAND SSDs later this month.