A Flashier NAB in 2013

Posted By Tom Coughlin on April 11, 2013 12:18 pm | Permalink
While the vast bulk of digital content is stored on hard disk drives, digital tape and even optical discs; flash memory is finding its way into more and more video workflow applications. and as a result it is changing the face of storage systems and architectures.  The 2013 NAB show gave a glimpse of a faster future for content storage using flash memory.

Read and even write speed for NAND flash memory can be many times faster than HDDs and decreasing flash memory cell sizes are providing solid state storage at lower prices.  Currently flash memory minimum line widths are at about 19 nm but they will probably go to 15 nm within the next couple of years.  While narrower line widths create challenges for flash controllers to reduce cell wear the major flash controller companies seem up to the challenges.  

As the prices go down on flash memory it will become used more and more frequently in storage systems.  The prices of other storage devices such as HDDs will also decrease with time but the access time to data on rotating storage devices has created limits to storage system performance that a bit of flash memory can help overcome.  

This has resulted in faster storage interfaces, many built upon the intrinsic speed of the PCIe bus in computer systems.  At the 2013 NAB show Intel announced that the copper-based PCIe-based Thunderbolt interface is going from 10 Gb/s raw data rates to 20 Gb/s raw data rate for the next generation products (probably due out in 2014).  Earlier in the year the USB Implementer Forum announced that the USB 3.2 spec, to be released in 2013 would increase USB interface speeds from 5 Gb/s to 10 Gb/s.  

Likewise the next generation of SATA and likely SAS storage interfaces running at 12-24 Gb/s or higher will also use the PCIe bus.  These faster interfaces have been designed to take advantage of the performance of solid-state memory devices.  Faster storage devices and interfaces are encouraging storage system providers for the media and entertainment market to include some (or a lot) of flash memory in their storage architectures.

Promise Technology was showing their Pegasus J2 mobile solid-state storage device with up to 512 GB of storage capacity and sporting a Thunderbolt connection, along with many HDD-based storage products with Thunderbolt and Fibre Channel connectivity.

Solid-state memory has become the storage technology of choice for all new professional video cameras, increasingly displacing other storage media (at least for field recording).  Panasonic said that their 64 GB and 32 GB microP2 cards (an SD card form factor) for their line of professional video cameras will be available this month.  

Fusion-io was showing up in a number of booths at the NAB show.  At the NVIDIA booth the 1.6 TB ioFX card was driving four 4K displays in real time.  Systems integrators are looking to include these cards in their systems, including HP integration of the ioFX cards in their Z-series workstation products.

Toshiba debuted a new flash based content distribution system at the NAB show.  The On-Air Max Flash Flash Memory Playout Server was on display with at least two partner companies that will use the product for content delivery applications.  The flash memory in this system consists of chips on a blade rather than having an SSD based system.  Toshiba has a whole family of flash-based content delivery servers for content delivery networks (CDNs).

Many other companies exhibiting at the 2013 NAB used flash memory for caching and other acceleration applications.  These included DDN, EditShare, EMC, IBM, HP  and NetApp among many others.  On the other hand there were some exhibitors who have decided to go flash memory all the way and replace all their other storage with solid-state memory. 

CloudSigma, a cloud services provider, announced that it is replacing its HDD infrastructure for all SSD storage systems from SolidFire.  The SolidFire  storage boxes provide 26 TB of raw SSD per box and the company uses a combination of performance virtualization, deduplication and compression to provide net storage costs to CloudSigma users of $0.14/GB/month for replicated content while providing a 100% storage performance improvement and a 40% overall performance improvement.  Since with this setup storage is no longer the bottleneck to overall solution performance the company reports 25% lower CPU and RAM requirements.

Clearly solid-state memory has found a solid niche in the media and entertainment industry.  It has enabled faster storage systems and interfaces that can support higher resolution video streams and thus should increase the productivity of modern video workflows.  It is also widely used as the storage media in modern high performance professional video cameras.  From content capture through content distribution flash is providing better overall storage performance for media and entertainment applications.

Tom Coughlin, President, Coughlin Associates is a widely respected storage analyst and consultant.  You can find out more about him at www.tomcoughlin.com.  He is the organizer of the 2013 Creative Storage Conference, June 25, 2013 in Culver City, CA, www.creativestorage.org.