IBM Launches $1bn Flash Research Drive And FlashSystem Appliances

IBM is betting big on flash storage for the data centre, announcing a $1 billion initiative to research the technology and releasing  a line up of all-Flash storage appliances.

Big Blue said flash could unlock plenty of Big Data potential, due to its ability to speed up read and write processes, compared to standard disk drive technologies still widely used by businesses today.

The massive R&D investment will be used to “create and integrate new flash solutions”, whilst 12 Centers of Competency have been set up to run proof-of-concept Flash operations. They will be up and running later this year, with one in the UK.

Flash competition

“The economics and performance of flash are at a point where the technology can have a revolutionary impact on enterprises, especially for transaction-intensive applications,” said Ambuj Goyal, general manager for systems storage for IBM Systems & Technology Group.

IBM has launched its line-up of FlashSystem all-flash storage boxes too, which are based on technology acquired from Texas Memory Systems. It claimed early customers had seen “up to 90 percent reductions in transaction times for applications like banking, trading and telecommunications”.

The appliances will take IBM into closer competition with EMC, the storage giant that has produced its own all-flash storage appliances, thanks to its XtremIO acquisition of 2012.

Future of flash

IBM is investing heavily in flash, even though it is expected to be overtaken by another technology in the next 5-10 years, known as phase-change memory. IBM scientists are already hard at work developing systems built on PCM, however.

PCM uses phase-change materials, known as chalcogenides, which can switch from amorphous to crystalline states very easily. Those in an amorphous state can be read as a “0”, whilst crystalline states are read as “1”. Its individual cells are often called “memristors”.

The process is faster than flash. That’s because unlike flash, where electrons are stored in “floating gates”, it doesn’t have to rewrite a whole group of nearby cells when writing is taking place.

PCM is also thought to be much more durable than flash and provide greater potential for increased density.

But for now, flash will remain dominant in the non-volatile memory space, as researchers continue to battle with a number of prohibitive PCM issues, such as trying to ensure multi-level cells, which can contain more than one bit, can be written and read effectively.

Indeed, it was two years ago IBM first showed off a PCM test chip and started proselytising about its flash-killing potential. Nothing has come in the way of a commercial product.

What was tech like before flash and PCM? Try our Thatcher-era 80s IT quiz!

Thomas Brewster

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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