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IBM And Micron Discuss FlashSystem All-Flash Arrays And Micron FortisFlash

By - Source: IBM

IBM unveiled its FlashSystem V9000 and 900 All-Flash offerings in February, and one of the most compelling parts of the announcement centered around IBM's strategic partnership with Micron and its use of FortisFlash. This new class of Micron MLC NAND flash (Fortis is Latin for "strong") allows manufacturers to tailor the flash at the base level to unlock new levels of performance, endurance and cost efficiency.

Most all-flash array manufacturers simply wrap software around commodity SSDs. In fact, IBM also began its all-flash journey in 2009 with systems built around SSDs. The acquisition of Texas Memory Systems (TMS) in 2012, and a billion dollar investment in flash technology in 2013, paved the way for IBM to become one of the few all-flash array manufacturers to leverage custom SSD designs. IBM indicated that the move to Micron's FortisFlash is designed to extend that advantage.

Tom's IT Pro recently spoke with Michael Kuhn, the Vice President and Business Line Executive for IBM Flash Systems within IBM's Systems Group. "We were on eMLC flash chips with our previous-generation product, and we moved our NAND flash chip supplier from Toshiba, who supports our existing products, to Micron (MLC) with the new products." Kuhn explained, "We did that because we felt comfortable that we could get the extra density, drive the cost point down, and still not give up anything from a cost or reliability standpoint."

Kuhn also noted that many FlashSystem optimizations are derived from key IBM technology. "Certainly we have some unique capabilities," he said. "We have been able to take their FortisFlash chip and do some unique things with data path optimization, and we do our own RAID protection at the card level, and at the system level. We are excited about the partnership and the relationship with Micron, and we are obviously excited about where this potentially will go." IBM developed its integral FlashCore Technology over several years with multiple engineering teams, including those from the Texas Memory Systems acquisition. IBM's MicroLatency Modules come from combining FlashCore with Micron's FortisFlash, creating what IBM terms its "IBM Enhanced MLC." "Going from eMLC to IBM Enhanced MLC gave us a 40-50 percent density improvement, and gave us a pretty big cost advantage as well," explained Kuhn.

IBM's MicroLatency modules feature a dense FPGA and NAND configuration with up to 5.7 TB of capacity each. FortisFlash provides an unprecedented amount of customization capability that allows IBM to dynamically adjust read thresholds and adaptively alter them according to the health and age of each block. IBM also leverages heat segregation (cold and hot data pooling, 49 percent endurance boost), selective wear leveling based on cell health (57 percent boost), IBM's variable stripe RAID, health binning, and its unique read-once ECC. IBM feels it can extract the maximum endurance from NAND without negative side effects with this combination of techniques.

Tom's IT Pro also spoke with Micron about FortisFlash's capabilities and potential applications. Micron indicated that FortisFlash bridges the gap between eMLC and MLC and gives its customers the tools to extend endurance themselves without performance penalties. Each manufacturer has to build its own IP around the API hooks provided by Micron, and with the right combination, MLC can extend from 3,000 write-erase cycles to 10,000.

FortisFlash can operate in SLC modes, but IBM hasn't disclosed if it utilizes this functionality. FortisFlash also offers enhanced read optimization features (ERO) and provides manufacturers both soft and hard data to enable more sophisticated error correction algorithms, such as LDPC. Micron noted that very few manufacturers have the capability to leverage the benefits of FortisFlash, and results will vary based upon the sophistication of each respective manufacturer. FortisFlash comes in both 16 nm and 20 nm varieties and will also be available with future 3D NAND products. 

Micron's pending 3D NAND products will provide a tremendous density boost to any NAND-based solution, and we inquired with IBM about the possibility of future 3D NAND integration into the FlashSystem portfolio. "We are evaluating 3D flash now, and we think this is probably the next evolution. We haven't spoken about that in the road map just yet, [but] it is probably something we are looking at closely and evaluating," said Kuhn.

IBM has invested heavily in NAND characterization and engineering and indicates the net effect of its efforts produces a 9.41 x endurance gain that is backed by FlashSystem's 7-year unlimited endurance guarantee.

Differentiation is key in the all-flash array market. IBM already has a complete software solution and leads the market in capacity shipped, according to IDC's Worldwide All-Flash Array report. IBM places lower in overall revenue, and some speculate that this is due to IBM offering a lower price-per-GB over competing solutions.

There aren't many with the capability to design and deploy completely integrated systems, and IBM also touted the fact that it is backed by a global channel presence and offers 24/7 support in 120 languages. IBM feels that moving to a more refined architecture that grants total control of the NAND stack, along with an even lower price point (around $2 per GB after compression), will grant it a competitive advantage.

Other companies can also use Micron's FortisFlash, which adds another layer of competition and innovation to the all-flash array market, and we expect other announcements in the future. Stay tuned.