Good-bye DRAM, hello flash?

New Flash memory sucks less juice than DRAM -- and lets you break conventional server memory limits

For some datacenter operators out there, insufficient server processing power isn't driving them to adopt more and more servers. Rather, it's the lack of precious server memory, necessary to deliver results at the lightning speed users have come to expect -- nay, demand -- from search engines, social networking sites, e-commerce sites, and similar Internet-based applications. A pair of companies, Virident and Spansion, have announced a remedy to the problem: replacing (or, more accurately, supplementing) the traditional DRAM found on servers with a flavor of flash memory called EcoRAM, capable of boosting a single server's memory beyond today's 32GB limit to a capacity of 512GB -- without increasing the machine's power envelope.

EcoRAM comes from Spansion (previously a joint venture of AMD and Fujitsu), while Virident brings to the table a silicon, software, and hardware platform called GreenGateway, designed to effectively transform flash RAM into DRAM-class memory. Combining the technologies opens up the opportunity for organizations running data-centric Web apps -- ones that perform frequent reads and infrequent writes -- to do with one server what they previously could do with four, the companies say. Given the struggles organizations are facing with high energy costs, limited power budgets, and finite datacenter space, that's significant.

"There is a class of applications in datacenters that are constrained by the addressable main memory a server can handle," says Rufus Connell, vice president, North American ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Research Practice for consulting company Frost & Sullivan. "As memory-bounded apps such as search use grow, conventional server architectures are failing to keep up with the increasing number of queries per second from consumers, which means more servers are needed and more power is needed to run and cool them. It is a real problem for datacenter operators globally, and a solution to help save energy and reduce total cost of ownership is needed sooner rather than later."

The kind of applications Connell is alluding to require a high level of memory sitting on the motherboard, close to the CPU, such that it can access and deliver data quickly. "Today's servers were not built with the data-centric needs of the Internet in mind. As a result, compute-centric servers in Internet datacenters can be made far more efficient with faster access to larger main memories," says Raj Parekh, co-founder and CEO of Virident (and former CTO at Sun). "We created GreenGateway to enable flash memory to replace DRAM and deliver performance and energy efficiency. ... The platform will enable Internet companies to access far larger main memories, achieving growth while living within the pressing power, space, and cost constraints of the datacenter."

The companies are currently targeting search as the application for their technologies, but they expect EcoRAM and GreenGateway can be effectively applied to applications such as data mining, databases, and biometrics. "I wouldn't call it a niche technology. We're probably talking about 40 to 50 percent of servers out there," says Hans Wildenberg, executive president of Spansion's media storage division.

The companies argue that their flash memory trumps DRAM in a number of ways. For example, DRAM is limited by energy constraints at the DIMM level and a limited number of DIMM sockets. "The typical DIMM is 2GB to 4GB. We can build up to 32[GB]," says Wildenberg, and that's in part thanks to the fact that EcoRAM consumes one-eighth the power of DRAM.

Notably, the companies say they've devised a way to rearchitect the memory subsystem so that it is still compatible with existing server designs. This is accomplished by leveraging the standard memory DIMM form factor while requiring little platform modification.

The result is higher density: "If you have a 32GB server today [from DRAM] ... we can move that server straight to 128[GB] or 256[GB] or 512GB," he says.

A year from now, in fact, he expects to see servers with a full terabyte of flash memory.

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More about: AMD, EMC, Frost & Sullivan, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, HP, IBM, Speed
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