Hardware

Extra-large solid state drives raise questions about real-world use

Nimbus Data says its 100 terabyte drive is right around the corner. We've heard similar claims from much bigger companies. Eventually they'll come true, but what happens then?

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Image: Vladimir_Timofeev, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nimbus Data said recently that it will soon ship a colossal 100 TB solid-state drive (SSD), raising questions about what special concerns arise for this new level of digital containment.

The current largest SSDs shipping to enterprise customers store about 10-16 terabytes. Bigger drives have been claimed, but none are shipping—Samsung announced a 30 TB drive in February 2018; Seagate proposed a 60 TB drive in 2016; and Toshiba almost three years ago said it's developing a 128 TB drive.

SEE: IT hardware procurement policy (Tech Pro Research)

Nimbus CEO Thomas Isakovich promised that his 100 TB whopper will ship to distributors within the next month. "We think the industry is absolutely ready for drives to get bigger," he said, noting that drive companies' business decisions—not the laws of physics—are the limiting factor.

"I think there's this arbitrary reaction by some that this is a number that's too big. I think that's just a short-term phenomenon," Isakovich said. "This is not an engineering exercise. This is a product that is sampling to customers now."

Isakovich said that engineers at Nimbus, in Irvine, CA, faced three challenges in designing their beast, dubbed the ExaDrive DC100, as compared to normal SSDs: using separate management chips for each of the drive's four flash controllers, rather than a single master chip; reducing heat by only turning on the memory chips that are needed at a given time, rather than all at once; and building in software that lets the drive continue running if some of the memory chips fail, rather than a serial configuration where a single failure would interrupt the whole system. These methods combine to make the drive reliable rather than having it run at full speed.

Digital forensics and application rewrites are additional special concerns for solid-state drives. Installing such drives in a storage array presents its own unique issues, although Isakovich said his drive will soon gain built-in array controller software.

Then there's the cost. The DC100 will cost "closer to the lower number" of the present 35-90 cents-per-gigabyte price range for existing solid-state enterprise drives, Isakovich said. But even at the lowest part of that range, 35 cents per gigabyte is $358.40 per terabyte, and who wants to pay $35,840 for a single drive?

Nimbus distributors will likely target hyper-scale customers such as the Amazons, Facebooks, and Googles of the world, along with other data giants such as government agencies and defense clients. They'll even sell it to the public for anyone who wants bragging rights. Yet sales staffers will face a tough situation when potential customers inquire about restoring a full DC100 from backups—Nimbus engineers found that it takes about 36 hours to write all that data, Isakovich acknowledged.

SEE: Got a lot of SSDs and hard drives to erase? You need the StarTech four-bay drive eraser (ZDNet)

Nimbus is buying its NAND chips from SK Hynix and another company Isakovich wouldn't identify. That may be Boise, ID-based Micron, and officials there weren't saying either. However, Micron SSD expert Jason Echols did share his opinions about concerns with SSDs of such vast scale.

"I think it's an innovative drive. It's fun. It challenges the market to think about these questions you're asking," said Echols, senior technical marketing manager. The mean time between failure of enterprise SSDs is now longer than that of conventional hard drives for most kinds of applications, he noted. Speaking metaphorically, "One thing you have to think about is the blast radius... if that thing goes up in smoke, what's the damage it's going to cause around it? If it just quits working, what's the impact to the broader system?"

"I think what'll happen is we'll see a couple of transitions occur that will allow more people to be comfortable with a big SSD," such as the fourth generation of PCI Express interfaces, 5G mobility, and data created by smart cars, Echols added. "I'd say in the next 5 years you can start to look at that kind of drive being pretty interesting."

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About Evan Koblentz

Evan became a technology reporter during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers" in 2015 and is executive director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 501(c)3 non-p...

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