Memblaze makes flash aware wide RAID solutions

FlashRAID is the first of many Chinese enterprise solutions

Memblaze logoMemblaze’s new FlashRAID PCIe card is interesting for two reasons, the technology and the company itself. The tech is one of the first standalone devices to do global wear levelling, the company is an enterprise/data center vendor from mainland China.

Lets start out with the tech itself, the Memblaze card shown off at the Flash Memory Summit a few weeks ago is a prototype in an emerging class, flash specific RAID-like storage solutions. This device, technically called the Memblaze FlashRAID Solution, is a PCIe3 card with an FPGA, RoC, and some secret sauce. The company chains NVMe drives together in a RAID-like manner but with some distinct advantages over traditional RAID.

Prototype Memblaze FlashRAID card

An early prototype of the Memblaze FlashRAID card

The big advantage to using a bespoke solution over traditional RoCs is that flash is not a traditional hard drive. If you are not aware of the tricks that are necessary to keep an SSD alive and error free, it isn’t easy. There is more error detection, correction, and most importantly wear levelling than most people imagine, it is a massively complex way to make a simple service. The key to making it all live for a tolerable amount of time is a good wear levelling solution, if you don’t have one your drive will die in very short order.

Wear levelling depends on a lot of things, the first one is the quality of your algorithms which can vary a great deal. From there the number of blocks, flash channels, and places to spread the writes over is the next key differentiator. That is the key to solutions like FlashRAID, the secret sauce is how they spread the writes and wear level across devices not just on a single device. If the solution is aware of and can control the minutia of the individual NVMe drives, it effectively has a lot more channels and chips to level over. This can make a massive difference in write lifetimes, something that is of paramount concern to datacenter flash users.

Memblaze is claiming that with 12 connected NVMe devices and their Global Wear Levelling technology, the write lifetimes of the drives can be extended by 4x over the individual components with a non-flash aware controller. Since this is an early prototype there is no way to verify that claim but the numbers are well within the bounds of possible. On top of this you also get RAID like speed increases and the low latency of flash. The devil is in the details though and for now it is too early to comment on how Memblaze’s FlashRAID performs.

The second item of interest is that Memblaze is a relatively new company, ~6 years old, but they are from mainland China. Why this is important is that for the past few years, there have been relatively few home-grown enterprise capable solutions from this region, most of the products were consumer oriented. Memblaze is one of the first vendors targeting the datacenter and critical enterprise apps with a China developed solution.

The company will face the same uphill climb to prove themselves as most new enterprise hardware vendors but there is no inherent reason they can’t get there. Why we are flagging this is that it is undoubtedly the first of many vendors targeting this lucrative market. If Memblaze and all the others can provided the needed reliability and support at a lower price point, it could radically change economics of an entire sector.

For the time being there isn’t much more than a prototype card and some high expectations. What they are claiming is inherently doable and if the 3-4x cost advantage they are aiming for pans out, it will make flash storage a lot more accessible than it was previously to a large class of buyers. Keep an eye on them and any others following in their footsteps, it could be quite disruptive to a lot of big companies.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate